By Jan Bidwell
Lansing Police Department Social Worker
LANSING, MI — It’s 9:30 AM and I am scrolling through the Lansing Police Department (LPD) report system to see if any citizens have been found deceased in their homes by family or friends and take note of any who might need some support to handle the trauma they have undergone.
I hear a tone on my police radio and instinctively stop and listen. A tone always means there is some danger. There has been a stabbing reported and a subject is threatening someone with the knife. I take note of the address so I can check later to see if there is anyone who might need help. I cannot know if I should respond until the situation is safely cleared by LPD.
A homeless provider calls and asks if I can help with a consumer who has just learned their child passed away. In times before Covid19, I would have jumped in my car and gone to speak with the homeless citizen to help them manage the immediate impact of their grief and make a referral to a mental health provider. I would then call the mental health providers and let them know I have referred a citizen. These days I simply speak with the citizen over the phone and listen carefully to see how they are able to negotiate the emotional waters within which they have found themselves, and make any referrals needed.
While I do scan police reports every morning, the second and third paragraphs are composites of situations with which I have dealt. I can never tell people about the citizens’ I meet and the help they need. What I can say is that there are more citizens in need, by far, than most can imagine.
Police are not called to graduations and christenings and weddings. The citizens that interface with law enforcement are sometimes having the worst day of their life. This is a job that most often revolves around managing trauma, mental illness or addiction, and the intersection of any of those three. Sometimes the solution is less difficult, but often still traumatic. Having a social worker respond can lessen the impact just because the stressors can be addressed more quickly.
But, it is a mistake to believe that all problems can be solved quickly or easily. Mental health services have been cut to the bone. Substance use disorder is massively undertreated. Too often people are caught in a destructive cycle due to untreated disorders or old trauma that has been left unattended, untreated. Even treated, all three are recalcitrant.
What I have had to learn to face daily in this job is all levels of trauma. There is generational trauma that is passed from parent to child. There is trauma that has spanned centuries and affects every part of our country. There is trauma that is the result of just one incident. There can be a current trauma that triggers an untreated underlying trauma.
I have learned that I can’t anticipate everything that will be needed. I am a 69-year-old white woman, and because I have been in the field of social work for over 40 years, I know I have much to learn from every person with whom I speak. I serve best when I remain curious and compassionate. I don’t need to know what everyone needs every day; I need to hear what everyone needs every day.
People often ask what I do in a day. There isn’t exactly a typical day. When compared to any one job I’ve ever had, there is nothing typical about my days. Rather, if you took all my jobs and shuffled them together like a deck of cards, you might end up with what I do in any given week.
Generally, I will speak with housing providers, mental health workers, community advocates, homeless outreach workers, CPS, veteran specialists, substance abuse specialists and many more, regularly.
When I learn that citizens have witnessed or endured violent trauma, I check with the lieutenant in charge of the detective bureau to ensure I will not impede an investigation before I call citizens to offer help.
Sometimes I am simply calling citizens to let them know that an officer is concerned and has asked that I reach out to help them.
I also am on the Ingham County Opioid Abuse Prevention Initiative, am Vice-chair of the Ingham County Board of Health, and sit on the Mayor’s Mental Health Task Force, and attend those meetings as best I can.
When able to be in my office on Wise Road I would go to line-up as often as possible. Officers and command staff often have citizens or situations that need social work, not police intervention, and they ask me to step in.
Frequently I go into the LPD Detention Center to speak with a detainee who is wrestling with any number of conditions. Sometimes I have seen a familiar name in an arrest report or am called by the sergeant who thinks I might be able to help. Sometimes a detainee asks for the social worker.
Before I was hired by LPD, I volunteered in the Detention Center for 18 months as a social worker on Saturday nights. I wanted to see where the cracks were in the system.
I certainly learned where the cracks are. I also learned that they can be cavernous and unrelenting. Too many detainees needed services not being received.
What I have also learned from the time I began volunteering in October of 2017 up until today, is that officers are tasked with managing these citizens whose needs cannot be met in the criminal justice system. They know they are not trained for this work, just as they also know there are not nearly enough services for these citizens.
Most importantly, because I am embedded, I have the chance to fill cracks that no one outside the department can see, and no one inside the department has the latitude to act upon.
Officers have knowledge about citizens that they can’t share with anyone, but they can tell me as a staff member. They have seen citizens in their community stumble, sometimes flounder, and they see there is no one there to catch them before they fall. They tell me.
I can tell providers in, matters of health and safety, that is, when it is literally a matter of life and death, when a citizen needs help.
It is wonderful when I can make referrals and build a team around a citizen before they tumble, before danger comes their way.
What a police social worker can do is connect the dots. Police social workers can approach citizens interfacing with law enforcement with offers of assistance just as things are all going wrong for them.
In this way, citizens who witness violence, are undergoing a mental health crisis, have lost a loved one, have an adult child struggle with severe mental illness, have children they feel are out of control, and more, so much more, can be heard and seen.
This job cannot be described succinctly. It is very complicated. It is nuanced. I have been writing now for a few hours. I have a police radio by my side, always. Since I began writing there have been 3 calls that have gone out on gun/shooting complaints, and two knife/stabbing complaints. One of these complaints was called in by a 12-year-old child.
I can read those reports soon and see if I can help. Sometimes I hear an address or name that I know I jump on the call. Other times I hear dispatch call for me and I can get on the radio. In this way, problems might be able to be resolved more quickly and more thoroughly.
But, I can’t get to everyone. I can’t answer every call. There is one social worker. Chief Daryl Green has greatly supported social workers integrated with police well before it became popular after the tragic death of George Floyd and LPD was the first in the State of Michigan to have a paid social worker. Chief Green stated, “LPD recognized years ago there was a need to divert people with social problems away from the criminal justice system and we introduced the social worker position to address homelessness, substance addiction and mental illness in our community.”
I have worked with over 575 people. I don’t carry a caseload or provide psychotherapy. I usually build that team around a citizen in need. I frequently give techniques to interrupt the immediate destructive impact of trauma until a citizen can get into therapy.
But there were 463 incidents of shots fired in 2020. That does not mean 463 bullets. That means 463 times guns were fired, sometimes over 70 bullets an incident. Think about that. Those were all from citizens. I can’t get to everyone impacted by the fear created by gunfire.
I know exactly how I would structure a full unit, but we have been told that we will get no more money for this unit. As of now, I am all LPD has for social workers. Chief Daryl Green stated, “I’m a strong advocate for more social workers integrated with police officers and I believe we have made some progress on this issue however, we have much more work to do.”
There isn’t a day that I take this work for granted. There isn’t a day that I’m not grateful.