Left unaddressed, mental illness, substance use disorders, and other behavioral health issues can lead to behaviors that bring affected people into contact with the police. Often, the criminal justice system is not the best solution for the people in crisis, their families, or their communities – including the law enforcement agencies themselves.

With this knowledge in mind, in 2022, the Health Fund awarded a grant to Grand Rapids-based behavioral health agency Arbor Circle to establish a full-time police social worker position — likely the first such role in a rural community in Michigan — within the Newaygo Police Department, which serves a community of 2,500 people north of Grand Rapids.

The project is providing rapid, intensive support to people in a behavioral health crisis, reducing demand on police officers to respond to situations outside their training. A year into the grant, this innovative model is producing meaningful benefits for Newaygo’s residents and offering a model for other communities to consider.

From idea to implementation

The seeds for the project were planted when Newaygo Police Chief Georgia Andres (pictured above at right) was approached by Nicole Klomp (pictured above at left), a licensed, Masters-level clinical social worker who lived in Newaygo. A former Child Protective Services employee, Klomp had experience providing intensive social work support to families and was looking to use her training to benefit the community in a volunteer role.

Volunteering with the police was an unconventional request, but Andres was open to seeing how it went, persuaded by Klomp’s credentials, solid plan, and passion for the idea. Initially, Klomp focused mainly on reviewing police case files and doing follow-up calls to families who presented a possible need for social work services. Over time, as these efforts yielded positive results, Klomp began creating procedures and compiling resources to formalize her role.

This involved establishing a relationship with Arbor Circle, which provided support and supervision and facilitated the development of a proposal to create a formal, full-time program with Health Fund support.

Grant funding has helped expand Klomp’s scope of work: she supports community members who come to the police station for help, travels with police officers on dispatch calls, provides referrals, case management, and ongoing support, and offers a supportive presence for officers and other department employees. She also has expanded her focus to include additional agencies in townships surrounding Newaygo.

“As a clinician, I’ve found I really thrive in the situations this role offers, providing that short-term focus that people in a crisis need,” Klomp said. “It’s really about prevention: providing an intervention at a place and time that will help prevent long-term negative impacts.” 

Benefits for community

From the law enforcement perspective, Chief Andres said the addition of Klomp’s role has improved the environment for mental health support in her town by routing people with behavioral health needs toward appropriate services and away from the criminal justice system.

Andres estimates that approximately 40 percent of police dispatch calls in her community of approximately 2,500 people directly relate to a behavioral health need. For officers trained in law enforcement practice and crime prevention, responding in these situations can extend outside their training.

“In a small town like this, the police are the first ones called for everything,” Andres said. “But if you have a person who is suicidal but not dangerous, you should dispatch a social worker, not a police officer or a firefighter. Having Nicole here allows us to dispatch the right person for the problem, the right resource.”

Andres said that Klomp’s unique expertise has averted repeat contacts between police officers and members of the community with behavioral health needs; since the beginning of the Health Fund’s grant, the department hasn’t responded to a single follow-up incident involving an individual that Klomp supported.

This success has caught the attention of law enforcement leaders in other areas of the state. Andres noted agencies in other rural communities in Michigan have taken steps to replicate the model or are investigating approaches to do so, recognizing its potential to reduce crime as well as support people in need.

“It’s easy to look at police and social workers and assume that we see things differently,” Andres said. “What this has shown to me is that we’re so much better when we work together.”

Supporting a multi-sector approach

The Health Fund’s Behavioral Health program is all about access to care, collaboration, and cross-sector partnerships to improve behavioral health care in Michigan communities.

This project is a successful example of two seemingly dissimilar agencies — a behavioral health and family services provider and a city police department — finding common ground to break down barriers, prevent behavioral health crises, and increase access to timely support.

And by facilitating connections to the larger network of behavioral health services, it’s making effective use of existing resources with the addition of a new layer of support at moments of critical need. As this project continues through the completion of our grant support, we look forward to learning more about its impacts and their implications for other communities across our state.

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