What Happened When a Kentucky Town Hired Social Workers to Work Alongside Police Officers

By Rachel Puryear

Following increasingly visible and vocal public anger at police violence, a national debate has arisen over the future of policing – including arguments over whether police departments should have funding reduced, and whether social workers should take over at least some work currently done by police. The town of Alexandria, Kentucky, with a population of less than 10,000, hired social workers to work alongside existing police officers, instead of just hiring more police officers. Here’s what happened.

Downtown storefronts in a poor rural town, with the modest, multicolored buildings showing a lot of wear and tear.

Four years ago, when Alexandria had an overworked police force (of 17) but tight funds for public safety, they tried hiring two social workers to assist the police. The rationale was about both connecting people in crisis to needed services, as well as cost-saving for the town. Most calls to police in the town are related to mental health, domestic violence, and substance abuse – all are problems where solution-oriented intervention and treatments are helpful and necessary.

Four years later, the town has experienced a significant drop in repeat 911 calls, and about 15% fewer people have been going to jail. Having social workers on board has been working! Retired Alexandria police chief Mike Ward said that the results of hiring the social workers were immediate for both people in need, and for the taxpayers.

Special thanks to Wave-3 news for more about this story.

There are a lot of takeaways to this story. The necessity for change in how mental illness is addressed is a big one. Mental illnesses are still subject to a great deal of stigma, and are complex health issues that are widely misunderstood. Mental illness is also commonly a factor in addiction and substance abuse. Where mental illness is combined with poverty, racism, and other forms of compounding marginalization, armed and authoritarian response to such can all too easily turn deadly. Punishment-oriented responses to mental illness will not help anyone, but it will do a lot of harm.

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