New academy trains social workers and police officers together

URBANA, Illinois – A new program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign trains professionals who work at the intersection of law enforcement and mental health, and the one-week academy may be the first of its kind.

Mental health emergencies often prompt community members to call 911 – either because the person experiencing the emergency is at risk of harming themselves or they are creating a public safety hazard. Historically, police officers have been the first responders dispatched to address the 911 call.

While some police officers have crisis intervention training, none are mental health professionals or experienced clinicians. That’s why the field is beginning to change, and it is what prompted public safety officials at Illinois to develop a unique training opportunity to address this complex issue.

This week, they are delivering their second Academy for Social Work and Public Safety Cooperation. It is a 40-hour course that provides foundational training for mental health professionals and law enforcement as they work together. It was developed by the University of Illinois Police Department (UIPD) and the University of Illinois Police Training Institute (PTI), which is led by PTI Director Dr. Michael Schlosser.

UIPD Crisis Outreach Coordinator Megan Cambron is one of the original developers of the academy, and she said that she is unaware of another academy that delivers information specific to police-social work cooperation in this manner. She developed the academy with the late UIPD Lieutenant Aaron Landers.

“Students are both mental health professionals and law enforcement officers, so we try to make the information as applicable as possible to both professions,” Cambron said. “We lay the groundwork for what we are doing and why by discussing the history of police crisis response, the public sentiment that demands change, and recent legislation.”

The course puts emphasis on clinical assessment of people experiencing mental health-related emergencies, with a heavy focus on suicide risk assessment. It also covers documentation and confidentiality for officers and social workers, and their obligations related to those calls for service.

The academy provides training on de-escalation skills, strategies and tactics for a safety mindset, basic self-defense and police radio communication education.

A large part of the academy involves scenario-based training with paid actors, where participants are presented with a live-action emergency call and must react and make decisions in real time.

“In speaking with other police social workers, I learned that there was no formal training for these roles, and that didn’t sit well with us,” Cambron said. “We want our teams to be clinically competent, compassionate and safe. We’re asking these teams to intervene in some unpredictable situations, with an increased level of risk. This training was developed out of necessity.”

Cambron and fellow presenter UIPD Sergeant Rachael Ahart have experience and education in their respective disciplines. They are also doing the work for real. The department launched its Response, Evaluation and Crisis Help (REACH) initiative under Police Chief Alice Cary in early 2021. REACH is a true co-responder model involving police and social workers, and they have responded to more than a hundred real-life emergency calls since its inception.

The academy covers the UIPD’s policies and procedures to help other departments get co-response programs up and running.

“Co-response models are an asset the community,” Cambron said. “We are proud to have been doing this work for nearly a year and are encouraged by what we are learning. We are conducting research to continuously improve and inform our work, and we are passionate about training other teams.”

More teams may be created soon across Illinois. This month, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed House Bill 4736, which creates co-responder pilot programs throughout the state. Officers and mental health professionals from one of those programs is in the academy right now. In total, 30 people will have graduated from the Academy for Social Work and Public Safety Cooperation by the end of this second round.

Training is going to be important as more co-response programs go live. Cambron said she worked in the mental health field for 10 years before joining UIPD, but even that experience did not fully prepare her for police crisis response.

“It is our opinion that there needs to be formal training and support for these teams,” she said. “We have a real opportunity to do some very important work, but we can’t send social workers into this work without preparation.”