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2 new social workers join Bloomington Police Department

BPD hired its first social worker in 2019. In recent months, the chief has brought on two more, with another planned soon.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind — When Bloomington dispatchers send police to the scene for help, it's not necessarily just officers who respond anymore. So does Melissa Stone, a social worker who works for the Bloomington Police Department.

"What I find is that sometimes people are just kind of falling through the cracks," said Stone, who was hired in 2019.

Stone and her colleagues respond with officers or sometimes right after to help those struggling with mental illness, homelessness, addiction or perhaps domestic disputes.

"You name it, if they call the police department, I can work with them to try to find them services so they don't need to call the police anymore. That's the goal," Stone said.

Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff said he began looking at social workers as a way to help cut down on repeat 911 callers.

"Those have dropped to almost nothing with a lot of these people," he said.

It's been so successful, Diekhoff added a second and third social worker within the last few months and plans on hiring a fourth soon, as well.

"I think they're very critical today and I think the need for them is only going to grow," Diekhoff said. "With police reform across the country and looking at alternative ways to respond to calls for service, I think the social worker route is a very useful way to use people to deal with those who have issues that aren't necessarily police-related, but police get those calls all the time."

Other departments are indeed pursing social workers as part of the solution.

RELATED: Gov. Holcomb signs police reform bill into law

That includes the West Lafayette Police Department, where police just hired a social worker who spent time training earlier this year in Bloomington.

Diekhoff said his department fields calls regularly from other departments across the country looking into the same thing.

"I feel like there's no better place to be. Because you help people young and old," said LaSaunra McCoy, who just joined BPD as a social worker. "I think it's very important because I think there's a gap that needs to be bridged between police and the community."

According to a study by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement.

RELATED: Amid outcry, states push mental health training for police

"I believe communities are beginning to look around and see how can we avoid these situations?" said Marshela Harris, an associate professor of social work at Indiana University Northwest. "And I think police departments are doing the same." 

Harris said some of her social work students intern with local police departments.

Melissa Stone said she does what she does because she believes she's making a difference.

"Just (people) calling to say, 'Hey I was able to make it to my appointment today so I was able to get medicine,' and that's changing their life," Stone said. "Those are the moments that keep you going."

They have no badge or patrol car. But they are a new part of the thin blue line with just as much passion to protect and serve.

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