An embedded social worker is changing the make-up of the Eden Prairie Police Department and how it responds to mental health calls.
The program, a partnership between the City of Eden Prairie and Hennepin County, has put full-time senior social worker Molly Mitley on the staff of Eden Prairie Police, following up on many mental health and substance abuse emergencies in an effort to get people the help they need and reduce repeat calls to 911.
The city and county share the costs of the trial program, and while Eden Prairie’s participation has only been seven months, there are some early signs of success. In the first quarter of 2022, Eden Prairie officers asked for the social worker’s help on 54 occasions; in the second quarter, referrals jumped to 114.
“In her short time here, Molly has built quality relationships with individuals and families who now work with her directly rather than calling 911 when they need the kind of assistance a social worker can provide,” said Eden Prairie Police Chief Matt Sackett. “With the addition of Molly, we are now able to offer even more support to our residents in need.”
Dozens of cities in Hennepin County have embraced the idea of pairing social workers with police officers. Early adopters have found enough success that they are providing ongoing funding, said Hennepin County Commissioner Debbie Goettel, who represents southern Eden Prairie.
As the county enters another budget-setting season, it too will look at providing ongoing financial support for the embedded social worker program, she added.
MENTAL HEALTH CALLS GROWING
Mental health and substance abuse issues have long been a part of the wide range of calls responded to by police officers in Eden Prairie and elsewhere.
In 2021, for example, Eden Prairie Police responded to 199 psychiatric medical calls, 101 suicide threat calls, and 36 attempted suicide calls. While these represent a small percentage of the nearly 43,000 calls that Eden Prairie’s 911 dispatchers received last year, they are steadily increasing in number and also complex calls, often from the same individuals, multiple times.
Recognizing this, the Eden Prairie Police formed a Mental Health Unit more than 10 years ago. The Mental Health Unit is a group of four officers and two sergeants who are specially trained to help the department deal with people who are experiencing mental health concerns. Members of the team follow up on calls where a person is in crisis and speak with the person involved or a family member to make sure they’re getting help.
With the addition of Mitley and her follow-up on calls, the department can now offer even more support to those in need.
Among the program’s immediate benefits have been Mitley’s ability to form deeper relationships with Eden Prairie residents needing help and her in-depth knowledge of the social services available, according to Lt. Rob Johnston, who oversees the local program. The result is very often a “customized” level of service, he explained.
Mitley’s background in hospital and community settings has been particularly valuable, as has her experience in providing culturally-informed and specialized resources. And, as Johnston acknowledged, some people are simply more comfortable talking to someone other than a uniformed police officer.
“We felt she would be a great fit,” said Johnston. “She’s met that, by far.”
ISSUE AHEAD: FUNDING
Mitley acknowledges there’s been a learning curve for her and Eden Prairie’s officers, but already they are noticing that people with whom officers have had frequent interactions in the past aren’t calling 911 as often because of the social worker’s help.
“People tend to call 911/police for many different reasons and at times police may not be the most useful resource,” explained Mitley. “They may initially be able to assess for safety, and then I am able to offer further supports to address the issue. I am able to work collaboratively with officers and this frees them up for more pressing matters to continue to keep our community safe. “
Several Hennepin County cities that have been part of the embedded social-worker program longer than Eden Prairie are already adding more social workers, said Goettel.
“It’s a wild success. Absolutely a success,” said Goettel, a former Richfield mayor, though she acknowledges there are still barriers to connecting residents with mental health or substance abuse care, including limited openings in programs and a shortage of healthcare workers.
“It has worked even better than we anticipated it would,” she said about the program. “It’s a relationship-building tool that has cut down on people calling the police, significantly.”
The task ahead, she added, is providing the ongoing funds to keep the program running. Which is exactly the goal that Johnston, of the Eden Prairie Police, also has in mind.
“We have hopes that it’s long-term,” he said. “This is a whole other addition to the things we can provide.”