WILLIMANTIC — Ryan Kelly was on a ride-along with the Willimantic Police Department when he noticed a man on the sidewalk who appeared to be nodding off.
“I told the officer I was with… we doubled back,” he said. After discovering that the man had overdosed, they called an ambulance and he was revived with narcan. Kelly said it was one of the prouder moments of his internship.
Kelly is one of two recent graduates from Eastern Connecticut State University who participated in a pilot program that places undergraduate social work students in internships with the local police department. The program is the first of its kind in the state, and was partially inspired by a state mandate approved last July requiring police departments to consider having social workers respond to or accompany police officers on calls for assistance.
But the new law wasn’t the only impetus for the internship, according to Isabel Logan, an assistant professor of social work and coordinator of field work at Eastern who oversaw the program. She said that Kelly and Emily Constantino, the other student participating, had prior internships fall through with the pandemic.
“I went into crisis mode, and I did what everybody does in crisis mode — I called the police,” Logan said, laughing. She left them what she described as a “heart wrenching” voicemail, and said they called her back right away.
Paul Hussey, chief of police in Willimantic, said that the program presented the department with an opportunity to fill the requirements of the new law. And because the department didn’t have money to hire a full-time social worker, the internship became a kind of test-run to see whether having a social worker in the department would be a good fit.
Constantino said that at first she wasn’t so sure about the idea of working with the police. No one in her family was connected to law enforcement, and she was worried her lack of knowledge would put her at a disadvantage.
Her misgivings were quickly put at ease.
“The minute we started talking about it, they were so welcoming. It just worked,” she said.
Logan and officers at the police department developed the program on the fly, crafting it so that it fit both the officers’ needs and the students’ 400-hour internship requirements.
Logan, who worked in the public defender’s office for 20 years, said that it made perfect sense to her to have social workers pair up with police departments.
“Why not help people in the very beginning to try to prevent them from coming into the system in the first place?” she said.
A couple of days after Logan called the department, Kelly and Constantino started the onboarding process. They got to know the officers and learned safety and personal defense tactics, met K-9 handlers and observed use-of-force and active shooter training. They also did ride-alongs in the police cars– Solak said that riding down a busy street with the lights flashing and sirens wailing could be “a little harrowing” the first time.
“It’s a little bit like a stress inoculation,” explained Hussey.
Constantino said that while at first the training took some getting used to, it was also “eye-opening” and helped her understand the expectations facing police officers.
During the 2020-21 school year, the students accompanied officers on at least a dozen calls, according to Hussey. Kelly described going into the woods in Willimantic to hand out information about food pantries and services to the people living in tents. He said they accompanied officers during a removal by the Department of Children and Families, and in cases of mental health crises.
In one instance, Constantino said, they received a call from a woman whose friend had overdosed at her apartment. The police and the EMTs arrived at the scene and administered narcan. Meanwhile, Constantino turned her attention to the woman who was watching.
“She was hysterical,” said Constantino. “She had just witnessed something extremely traumatic.”
Constantino said she was able to take the woman out of the situation and talk her down.
“I think that was the first time I saw — Wow, this is important, what we’re doing here,” she said.
Lt. Matthew Solak, who was responsible for supervising the interns, said that people sometimes call the police over things that might be better served by a counselor or a psychologist — things like homelessness or ongoing mental health concerns. By the time the police are called, Hussey explained, the situation has often escalated, sometimes to the point of having to use force.
This is where the value of a social worker becomes apparent. Hussey said that individuals trained in social work are more aware of warning signs that would allow them to intervene in a situation before it escalates into a crisis. He said the interns are able to talk to hospital staff and use “buzzwords” that the officers might not know.
Ideally, Hussey said, a social worker would be able to follow-up with individuals in need, checking in on them and providing them with services that they might not otherwise know about. And if an emergency did result in a police call, there would be a familiar face present to help calm the situation.
“We think it’s kind of funny that the two professions that don’t want to become each other actually work better together than apart,” said Logan.
Solak agreed. He said the interns were able to take some of the workload off the officers, allowing them to focus on other things, like robberies.
By the end of the internship, Constantino said, people she’d interacted with in the community were calling the police station and asking for her.
She and Kelly say their experiences have greatly influenced their future plans. Constantino plans to start her master’s degree in social work at the University of St. Joseph, and she plans to continue working with the Willimantic Police Department in the fall. Kelly is studying to become a police officer, and said he plans to apply to Willimantic.
Logan said she thinks the program could benefit communities across the state.
“Obviously each community has their own culture, but a model like this would definitely begin to reduce recidivism rate and lower entry into the court system,” she said.
For Constantino, the strength of the program lies in the ability to develop trust between police departments and local residents.
“There’s kind of a disconnect between law enforcement and communities and there’s a definite need for them to unite,” said Constantino. “My hope is that this helps to bridge the gaps.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Kelly had passed out clean needles in the woods to individuals living in tents. Kelly and Solak later clarified that the police department does not hand out clean needles. They do hand out pamphlets about substance abuse recovery.