A program that embeds a St. Louis County social worker with Duluth police continues to be refined in the hopes it will better address chronic issues stemming from homelessness and mental illness.
A group interview Monday with the program's key players revealed a sharper focus for the more than two-year-old program, which has been relocated into the Duluth Police Department's downtown branch office on Michigan Street in the Duluth Transportation Center.
The relocation was more than just a symbolic gesture to place the program in the heart of downtown. The new locale features the program's new social worker, Patty Whelan, teaming with a mental-health officer, Chad Guenther, as they work out of the same office. A program that started with a social worker conducting ride-alongs with officers as they cast a wide net is now strategically identifying people in crisis who are the subject of repeat 911 calls.
In a wide-ranging conversation that also included Linda Curran, the county's supervisor for adult mental health/adult protection, and Duluth Police Sgt. Ken Zwak, who oversees the downtown office, the quartet described renewed efforts to stop cycling people in and out of jail, detox and emergency rooms by directing them to services that can best serve them in moments of crisis, such as the residential crisis shelter Birch Tree Center.
"Giving people tickets (for trespassing) or taking them to jail (for disorderly conduct) doesn't make it better," Zwak said. "Detox, jail, the emergency room: It is a never-ending cycle that goes on and on and on."
As a licensed clinical social worker, Whelan has authority to admit people into crisis care, giving her more latitude than her predecessor. The team explained the case of a man last week whose family had called 911 repeatedly, worried about their loved one's erratic behavior and declining mental health.
"This was a person with major depressive disorder who hadn't had a medication change in years," said Whelan, who admitted the man into Birch Tree Center.
Unlike patrol officers who tend to only encounter people at their worst, Guenther was able to follow up with the man a few days after their first contact. The man was stabilized at the care facility, clean-shaven and talking a whole new outlook on life. Additionally, Guenther and the man had developed a rapport - the sort that Guenther said is a key to working with adults who may have a fear of police authority or are used to refusing treatment and interventions.
"This is a job I put in for," Guenther said of the new team. "When people ask police officers why they get into it, the cliché answer is always, 'to help people - to serve.' But in my mind this is better policing."
The pilot program had some missteps early on, but none that anybody involved regrets. Even as it was unfolding it was receiving commendations and awards for innovation.
"Like any pilot program you're always going to tweak it and change it to make it better," Curran said.
"It got us to this point we're at now," Zwak added.
Figures from the Duluth service organization CHUM show that police routinely make high contact (four or more times a month) with people between 70 and 100 times every quarter. The goal of the embedded social worker program is to reduce those chronic run-ins with authorities and set the people involved on a path to greater stability. The recent changes to the program have been well-received by CHUM.
"I think they wanted the first round to be like how it is now," said CHUM street outreach worker Deb Holman, whose work closely intersects with the embedded social worker program during weekly meetings with Guenther and Whelan. "I think it's going to be better going forward."
The embedded social worker program started in spring 2015 after a series of high-profile runs-ins with citizens and suspects who had serious mental health problems. Then-Police Chief Gordon Ramsay returned from a national policing conference having been exposed to the practice of embedding social workers into a police force and saying he didn't want officers shooting any more people with mental health issues, Zwak said.
Current Police Chief Mike Tusken is credited by the team with adding the more-targeted focus to the current endeavor. Now, in their meetings with Holman, Guenther and Whelan are identifying five to 10 people weekly who are having the most police contacts.
In one recent case, Holman said, a woman became obsessed with calling 911, believing herself to be a sort of drug informant. In others, it's neighbors or others who call to report a person acting out or committing petty crimes such as trespassing. Most people encountered by the team are experiencing multiple issues - homelessness stacked with chemical dependency and mental health issues, the sources said.
The program was first funded with $75,000 from a prevention and innovation fund within St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, and has continued to be supported by the county board, which receives a regular report on its effectiveness and progress.
Curran said the embedded social worker is just one of several efforts designed to reduce chronic use of emergency rooms and 911 services - the strain upon those services in recent years having been widely reported by the News Tribune.
Together with the CHUM- and Duluth police-led Community Intervention Group - more than a dozen agencies working together to address homelessness - and other efforts such as the District Court's specialized mental health court, Curran said there are many agencies and entities coming together to shift the paradigm of how chronic homelessness and mental illness are addressed in Duluth.
Said Curran, "We can never forget the person at the center of it all."