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Citizen push prompts OPD to hire a social worker

<p>Recently elected city councilperson Amber Franklin has led the charge to add a social worker to OPD.</p>

Recently elected city councilperson Amber Franklin has led the charge to add a social worker to OPD.

While running for Oxford City Council, Amber Franklin pushed for adding a social worker to the Oxford Police Department (OPD). This year, a social worker for OPD has been added to the budget and is set to be appointed for spring 2022. 

The push for a social worker came from a three-pronged proposal a Black Lives Matter (BLM) community group presented to city council in 2020.

Franklin said the Police Community Relations and Review Commission (PCRRC) took up the challenge after BLM Oxford proposed the idea to Council. 

“This came out of the events of summer of 2020 after the killing of George Floyd,” Franklin said. “In towns big and small everywhere, there was a renewed interest in police interactions with community members, and in particular, community members who might have some mental health [issues]. It was really Black Lives Matter Oxford that originally presented a proposal to investigate how we can look at complements to traditional policing here in Oxford.”

The PCRRC formed a working group to make recommendations focused on alternative responses for mental health crises, substance abuse and social services calls currently being dispatched to Oxford Police and/or Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

The BLM community group’s proposal, Franklin said, wasn’t the only proposal presented of similar content.

“There was a sort of a counter proposal other community members had presented to city council, almost as a counter to the Black Lives Matter proposal,” Franklin said. “But when you looked at both proposals, there was actually a lot of overlap in what the community wanted, which was ways to meet the needs of people in crisis.”

The working group consulted staff from Access Counseling, Butler Behavioral Health and OPD, as well as social workers from Kentucky police departments and faculty from the Family Studies and Social Work (FSW) department at Miami University.

Franklin said one challenge in implementing this social worker is acceptance from OPD officers. 

Mayor Mike Smith said he believes OPD is open to adding a social worker.

“They welcome it because they realize a social worker is going to bring some different tools to the toolbox,” Smith said.

Franklin identifies two main themes coming from the working group’s research: first responders feeling underappreciated and the need for greater equity for marginalized communities in Oxford. 

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“[Some first responders] feel like they're under too much scrutiny and don't have enough recognition, that they're understaffed, and they feel that there are unrealistic expectations placed on them,” Franklin said. “Another theme that emerged was the sense of inclusion and equity so that there are members of the Oxford community that feel marginalized.”

According to the working group’s executive summary, the ideal social worker would respond to non-threatening calls, provide diversity, equity and inclusion training to first responders and provide ongoing case management. They would also collaborate with social workers across agencies to address issues related to data collection, training and barriers to access of mental health resources.

OPD Lieutenant Lara Fening said she looks forward to having a social worker who can address many of the calls OPD currently has to refer to outside agencies. 

“We’re relying on another agency to take care of this person, and so we don't really always know what happens after we make the referral,” Fening said. “Having someone in-house – that will be of great benefit. So we can, even though there's going to be some confidentiality which I totally get, be updated on progress.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Talawanda School Resource Officer Matt Wagers began working as a community resource officer for OPD on Wednesdays, filling in the social worker gap. Wagers’ first job, Fening said, was catching up on follow-ups OPD needed to complete. 

Fening said she and OPD are optimistic about adding a social worker because of the success Wagers had in his position.

“There's a wide variety of problems with mental health and a number of different agencies can help, but we’re not always greatly suited to know exactly what those agencies are doing and who's the right agency,” Fening said. “A lot of homeless people have mental health issues so they can be difficult to take care of because a lot of times there's suspicion, there's a lack of wanting to cooperate.”