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How Cops & Clinicians Aims To Change Policing In St. Louis, Beginning With Just 16 Hires

Between 80 and 100 people rallied in support of law enforcement Saturday, March 28, 2015 outside the headquarters of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police.
File photo/Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio
Police supporters rally outside the headquarters of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police. Beginning in 2021, some St. Louis officers will be paired with social workers in responding to calls for service.

Earlier this year, St. Louis city officials defunded the jail, cutting $860,000 from the budget for its Medium Security Institution, better known as the Workhouse. Now the city is gearing up to launch a new program paid for with that money, one that hires social workers to respond to some 911 calls.

Known as Cops and Clinicians, the initiative was previously pioneered in a very limited pilot program within the city. City officials say the new iteration will be bigger, with 16 to 18 additional hires underway at its contractor, Behavioral Health Response. Those new hires will work with existing staff at the company to provide round-the-clock service, beginning in January.

And that service includes two components. First, some calls to the city’s emergency line will be diverted to crisis counselors and mental health specialists, who can provide support over the phone in a way most 911 dispatchers cannot or do not. In some cases, clinical specialists will also respond to designated calls for service alongside police officers.

The director of the city’s Office of Children, Youth, and Families, Wilford Pinkney Jr., oversees the effort. He was a police officer for 20 years in New York City, and he came to St. Louis as a Fuse Executive fellow to work on bail reform. Now the money saved by getting people out of jail in that effort is directly funding this one.

Pinkney explained on St. Louis on the Air that police officers welcome the assistance of social workers. Cops, and particularly young cops, don’t often feel equipped for what they’re tasked with handling.

“You do a lot of training around tactics and law,” he said, explaining the background officers bring to the situation. “And the other side of that is you’re 20. I was 22 years old. And most cops when they join the force are so young, and so you don't even have the life experience necessarily to deal with these situations, as well as any specialized training.”

Tiffany Lacy Clark, the chief operating officer of Behavioral Health Response, said the city is working to make sure the response from social workers and officers is truly collaborative.

“It's about the officer and the clinician showing up not as separate people with separate goals, but showing up in a partnership,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, it’s not just about diffusing situations, but helping connect families with the resources they need.

“[The idea is] that we are all aligned and trying to move people out of the criminal justice system when it's not necessary, and move them into the treatment system, where they should be aligned and should be able to get treatment,” she said.

Pinkney said a similar initiative in Harris County, Texas, handles 50 percent of the county’s mental health calls. The goal is for St. Louis’ program to reach the same level.

Beyond that, he hopes to connect people to a coordinated system of care. “And not only are we connecting them, but we're following up and making sure that people are getting into that system and getting the help they need,” he added.

He also cited more trust in the police as a desired outcome. “Another measure of success, for me, would be better communication between the police and the community, that people see that the police now see them and think about them as individuals and think about their needs. And where appropriate, they can connect them to care instead of either taking them to a hospital or potentially arresting them, which is what happens now.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.