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Social worker to join police ranks in area departments

By Laura Giles - Herald Correspondent | Feb 13, 2022

Courtesy American Fork Police

This undated photo shows an American Fork Police Department vehicle.

American Fork’s police department is adding a new member to the team — but they’re not a police officer. Through a grant from the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, the department will now have a social worker to aid officers with people going through mental health crises.

“Our plan is to hire a licensed social worker that will be able to respond on calls with police officers and medical personnel when someone is going through a mental crisis,” said Lt. Josh Christensen. “Normally, just a police officer responds. They’ll spend the time with them, but they don’t have a mental health background or they might get called out somewhere.”

For example, when police respond to a person who may be suicidal, the goal is to get the person professional help and get them to a hospital for treatment, according to Christensen. Sometimes, the process goes smoothly. Other times, officers can spend a couple of hours with the person, trying to get them to accept help.

“In the meantime, we have other calls coming in — accidents, domestic violence, theft — that that officer is now not able to respond to,” he said. “Now, once the situation is safe, the social worker can spend the time needed.”

Another reason to hire a social worker, according to Christensen, is to be more proactive in identifying and helping people in the community that require services, who are battling with mental health issues. “Do they need a ride to their appointments or other help?” he said. “We want to keep them where they need to be so they don’t get into a mental health crisis that might require a police response. We want to somehow try to identify that and proactively reduce the number of interactions with them.”

Currently, every police officer in American Fork’s department goes through training with the Crisis Intervention Team. “It teaches them about the different types of mental illnesses and different types of medications,” Christensen said. “What type of mental illness may determine what type of response they need, what type of help they need.”

Christensen said that the one-week CIT course is good, but a social worker is going to be more experienced and better equipped to help people.

“They’re experts. They will be able to get people that better service,” he said.

Officers in American Fork typically respond to two to three incidents involving those struggling with mental health each day. Christensen added that the number of calls has gone up in recent years.

The new social worker is expected to start in the next two weeks. “We’re really excited about it. It is a two-year pilot program. “At the end of that two years, we hope to find some other funding or maybe the city could pick up the financial burden and be able to keep this program going,” Christensen said. “Officers have so many other duties. We think this will be very successful.”

Lone Peak’s Police Department will also be participating in the pilot program. American Fork’s social worker will be working with Lone Peak part-time. “Our hope is to better identify those who may find themselves in crisis, and get them the services that would best help their individual circumstances,” said Lone Peak Chief Brian Gwilliam.

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