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Oxford considers hiring social worker to respond to mental health calls

<p>The City of Oxford is continuing to work on how it handles mental health crises.</p>

The City of Oxford is continuing to work on how it handles mental health crises.

In response to calls for change from Black Lives Matter (BLM) Oxford, City Council is now working toward improving its response to mental health crises. 

On Nov. 17, City Council passed the Safe, Healthy and Equitable Society resolution, which was sent to the Police Community Relations and Review Commission (PCRRC) for further review and research, with the ultimate goal of the PCRRC making recommendations to City Council on ways to develop new crisis response methods and support the Oxford Police Department (OPD). 

The PCRRC is a group that was created several years ago in response to ongoing citizen activism, said Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene. 

“As a result of that investigation, they are supposed to recommend proposals to City Council that will address the call for action from [BLM Oxford],” Greene said. “So we’re supposed to explore … how well our police department is doing, make suggestions for areas of improvement, and they’re charged with thinking about new ways of making responses to crisis situations.”

The PCRRC has formed a working group to conduct this investigation and recommend a course of action for the city. The group includes Greene, OPD Chief John Jones and other community members.

“We’ve been listening to the social service providers that are already working with our police department, and hearing from them, ‘Where are our gaps? Where are we not doing well?’” Greene said. “We’re going to do focus groups with our own first responders [with the] same question.”

Amber Franklin, associate professor and chief departmental advisor for speech pathology and audiology at Miami University, is also involved in the PCRRC working group. 

She said the group is still in a learning phase and is currently working to hear perspectives and thoughts from different members of the community.

“We're learning and investigating different models for meeting the needs – social needs, mental health needs – of the community, either in addition to policing or outside of policing,” Franklin said. “So that's the goal right now. We don’t have a set answer for what the best model will be for Oxford, but we're investigating and learning.”

In addition to internal research, the PCRRC is working with two capstone classes in Miami’s School of Social Work and Family Studies. The classes have conducted surveys with both community members and police officers and are expected to present their findings to the PCRRC in late April. 

Based on the surveys’ findings, the PCRRC will then make a recommendation to City Council about what model will work best for the city.

Oxford resident Shana Rosenberg, a member of BLM Oxford, said while the organization would prefer to see the city create a separate agency dedicated solely to mental health, she believes the city’s efforts toward possibly adding a social worker to the police department is a step in the right direction.

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“Just from listening to what some of the social workers that are already involved with collaborating with the police department and what Chief Jones has said himself about the kind of work that they do,” Rosenberg said, “I think a social worker would be a great addition.”

Rosenberg said she wants to see an increased focus on mental health from OPD because those who are having a mental health crisis often have nowhere else to turn. 

She would also like to see someone in the community who is dedicated solely to helping people dealing with mental health crises or addiction, among other things.

Latricia Hillman, who is also a member of BLM Oxford and is on the PCRRC working group, agrees with Rosenberg. She said OPD is a community-based policing department, so adding someone like a social worker who could work with the community on mental health matters would be a benefit to the department.

“I think [a social worker] would make OPD’s job a little easier because then they could actually focus on the law part of it and not just the mental health,” Hillman said. “Because they're answering calls that … they don't have the background or the knowledge to answer [or] to deal with it, because we do have people who have mental health issues in Oxford that need help.”

Hillman also stressed that while she would like to see change in the community, the goal is not to defund the department or criticize its efforts.

“We're not coming in and going, ‘OK, and now you haven't done your job correctly, so we're doing it this way,’” Hillman said. “What we're saying is, ‘Hey, how can we help you do your job better? Give us some advice.’ We're not taking over, we're not overstepping, we're not doing any of that. We are literally asking the community, ‘Hey, what would you guys like to see happen?’”

Rosenberg and Hillman are optimistic the community will take steps toward providing better mental health resources and responses. 

Rosenberg also hopes the addition of a mental health professional into the police department will help not only mental health calls, but will also allow for someone to follow up on these concerns, which often doesn’t happen now.

“When the police are out on a call, they go there and they discover that someone is in crisis and they help that person to receive help that evening,” Rosenberg said. “But then after that, that problem may still remain. That follow-up that is lacking right now in some ways, that would be very much helped by a social worker in the police department.”