Nearly three years ago, social worker Megan Schueller began riding with Rochester police officers and Olmsted County deputies. Soon, more of her colleagues could follow suit.
“It sounds like everyone is in favor of expanding that program,” Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch told county commissioners last week, announcing plans to find a way to expand the embedded social worker program.
The effort started as a test in July 2017, with Schueller, an Olmsted County senior forensic social worker, tagging along with Rochester police officers and county deputies responding to calls regarding people facing a mental health crisis.
The goal was to study the impact of adding a social worker to patrols that frequently encounter people in crisis.
Rochester Police Chief James Franklin and Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said crisis calls have been climbing in Rochester and Olmsted County for years.
The combined increase for the two agencies is from 1,107 calls in 2014 to 1,561 last year, a difference of more than one per day.
While the number of calls has climbed, Welsch said the data gathered shows Schueller’s presence has made a difference in how cases are handled. The related number of arrests has declined.
“We have a couple years of solid data to show it’s helping,” she said.
Sheriff Kevin Torgerson agrees. “We don’t see this type of call lessening in the future,” he added.
Welsch said a proposal to expand the number of social workers available could be presented to the county board next month, and commissioners voiced support for the idea.
“We’ve had great success with it so far, so it makes sense to expand,” commissioner Ken Brown said amid similar comments from other board members.
With the county facing a hiring freeze amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Welsch said the initial plan would likely borrow staffing and related funds from other areas in the county.
Torgerson said options are being discussed but acknowledged that any additional social worker staffing will come with a cost.
“They’ve asked us to look at our numbers and what we are doing and whether we could do without something here or there,” he said, adding that the review is looking at a variety of options at this point, including potential grant funding.
Amid nationwide calls for defunding law enforcement and broadening the use of social workers, the local effort isn’t expected to replace officers answering calls.
“We are seeing a lot of volatile individuals that could put a person at risk,” Schueller said, adding that some low-level followup calls could be done without a law enforcement presence.
“I think we need to be very thoughtful about how we approach that,” she said.
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton agreed a balance is required.
“Not every call needs a police officer and for some families having a police officer come to the door is a frightening experience -- not everyone, but for some who've had a bad experience, that’s the case,” she said during an online discussion of city issues Thursday. “If they are calling on something that is a mental health crisis, perhaps even a chemical dependency crisis or domestic violence or social services type issue, that social worker might be more appropriate to deal with this type of situation than a law enforcement officer, so they go together.
“The law enforcement officer is to make sure some things don’t get out of control.”
When violence is a possibility, Torgerson said the information Schueller provides becomes an extra tool that can be used to de-escalate a dangerous situation.
“When she’s riding along with an officer, whether it’s a deputy or police officer, she’s able to access the file on the person, so she can already be looking up what medications the person might have,” he said, pointing out Schueller’s access to confidential data can help develop a safe game plan by the time officers arrive.
He said the information can also be provided over the phone in cases where Schueller isn’t already on the scene, but that requires her to be on the clock.
Schueller typically works four 10-hour shifts a week, focusing on days with the greatest chance for crisis calls and afternoon and evening hours, when she is needed most.
Franklin said the need still exists when Schueller isn’t available.
While Rochester was the second police department in the state to embed social workers on patrols -- following in Duluth’s footsteps -- Franklin said he believes the city and county will break new ground if Welsch and county commissioners are able to find a plan to add the proposed staff.
“I do believe we would be the first entity in the state to have that 24/7 capability,” he said of having social workers available for calls every hour of the week.