Maplewood Discusses Hiring Police Social Worker & ‘Differently Funding’ Police

by Mary Mann
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A proposal to hire a social worker to work with both the South Orange and Maplewood police will be reviewed by the Maplewood Community Board on Policing and may be reshaped by what that Board reports from its own research on police social workers on October 7.

Nonetheless, Maplewood leaders said they wanted to move quickly on the idea and hopefully have some form of police social worker implemented sometime in the first half of 2021.

“We’re really thinking about how can we reimagine policing in our community and how we can augment services to be more community centric and tailored to the issues that our police are called upon daily to confront,” said Greg Lembrich, Maplewood Township Committee Public Safety liaison, at the TC’s September 1 meeting.

Lembrich said that he had been discussing a pilot program between South Orange and Maplewood beginning next year to hire a social worker to work with the police chiefs in the two towns “to evaluate what kind of calls the social worker could respond to or follow up on after the police have responded.”

Lembrich said both Maplewood Chief Jim DeVaul and South Orange Chief Kyle Kroll were enthusiastic about the idea.

One attraction to the shared service: Lembrich said the chiefs weren’t sure that either department had the volume to keep someone occupied full time. Although Maplewood would be the lead agency, “this person would spend time in both communities.”

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum has drafted a job posting for a police social worker, reported Lembrich, who added, “We’d like to finalize and get it out some time this month.”

Lembrich then outlined the sorts of calls that the Maplewood Police Department currently receives that the social worker could help respond to: In 2019, Maplewood police reported 216 calls for welfare checks, 60 calls for homeless issues, 67 panhandling, at least 42 for domestic violence, 38 for emotional disturbed persons, 12 control substance abuse issues, 43 juvenile arrests, 4 sexual assaults and 4 suicides. Said Lembrich, these are “all things that police and the clergy alliance help and respond to, but having a social worker … would be helpful.”

Some of the essential job functions listed in a draft job description for the position include “coordinating social work services within the departments, development and leading an ongoing needs assessment of the departments and the community, using models and best practices to implement appropriate community interventions and prevention strategies, assisting families and individuals in crisis, collaborating with police and emergency medical services in the field when appropriate, acting as a conduit between our departments and other social services department and agencies, coordinating with juvenile aid programs, working with restorative justice,” and more.

Lembrich said he would be looking for feedback from the Community Board on Policing and the community, “but I think this is the way to go. If we wait for the perfect plan, we’re going to be waiting for a long time.” He said he would like to approve the job posting by September 15.

Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis, also a public safety liaison, agreed with the substance but not the process, he said, acknowledging that the idea represented “shifting a bit away from law and order to care.”

However, Dafis said, “The process here stinks. There’s no process.”

Saying that the Community Board on Policing was not “looped in on this,” Dafis said, “It’s gotta be community driven.”

Dafis also said he “had an issue with the social worker being managed by the police department,” and that, as Lembrich outlined in the list of duties, “it’s not true that there’s not enough work for a full-time social worker.”

“Why are we rushing?” asked Dafis.

Lembrich replied, “What stinks is that our deputy mayor whenever he is not a part of the conversation says it stinks.”

Mayor Frank McGehee sought to de-escalate the tension between Lembrich and Dafis and invited other committee members to speak.

Not wanting to get in the middle, Nancy Adams said it was appropriate for Lembrich to research and for the CBP to review the proposal. “I like the idea and I want to pursue it but I do want the expertise of people on the Community Board on Policing to review.” However, saying she didn’t want the proposal to “get weighed down too much,” Adams asked that the CBP “have this as a priority and work on this diligently. … Those meetings should take place at a quick place … so that it’s not dragged out and we get a good position at the end.”

Former Mayor Vic DeLuca said, “I like that it’s a shared service. I like the idea of thinking differently about how we are going to fund the services we provide. I don’t support defunding the police but I do support differently funding the police and I think this gets us in that direction.”

What he didn’t like: “I don’t think the service we are providing should be run by the police department.”

“I’d like to have us look at a couple of other models,” said DeLuca. “In short order that person will be working for the police department and the culture of the police department will influence that person.”

“Additionally I think that this is beyond one person,” said DeLuca. “I think there are different skills needed,” listing mental health to medical to language skills. “We ought to be thinking of a team approach” perhaps hiring “an entity that has those skills we can draw from.”

DeLuca added, “I don’t think we should make the perfect the enemy of the good but I think we need to work on the good.”

Dafis noted that the Community Board on Policing was due to report on its own social worker research in early October.

McGehee said he largely agreed with DeLuca’s comments.

“Bottom line: We are moving in the right direction,” said McGehee.

Mayor McGehee closed the discussion by saying, “Let’s listen to our CBP. Let’s kick it back there. It shouldn’t take a year to get done. It should get done relatively quickly. Let’s hear from CBP on October 7.”

In other police policy news, McGehee said Auxiliary police research and findings will be reported out in October. “We have a lot more reading to do and discussion,” said Mayor McGehee. The auxiliary police functions were suspended for 90 days this summer as community members discussed whether of not the volunteer force should remained armed.

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