Whether we’re discussing the opioid crisis or concerns about mental health and mass shootings, it’s clear that business as usual is not sufficient. It’s time for government to rethink how we approach law enforcement and mental health and look for lasting solutions within our community.
Recently, I called upon our township to evaluate a program implemented in Stafford Township (Ocean County) under the leadership of Stafford Mayor John Spodofora and Stafford Police Chief Thomas Dellane called On P.O.I.N.T. (Proactive Outreach in Needs and Treatment). Congressman Tom MacArthur recently urged the federal government to adopt the program as a national model, and it has received awards from the Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma and the Mental Health Awareness Committee of Ocean County. Whether Bridgewater could duplicate it exactly needs to be considered further, but this is exactly the type of thinking we need to be doing.
The program works like this. The township would partner with a social services program, who would provide social workers to work out of the police station two days a week. When the police department comes into contact with residents or a situation where the officer feels more help could be needed, the police officer will refer those individuals to the social workers. The social workers will then reach out to those individuals to try to provide assistance. Residents referred to the program are not forced to take advantage of it, but if the resident is interested, this could be the key helping hand needed to get individuals and families help before a situation escalates.
The types of situations referred to these social workers varies from potential drug abuse, mental health concerns, hording and unsafe living conditions, or strained family situations. Many times the police officers can see an unhealthy or unsafe situation, but are not trained on how to provide long term solutions. Now, working with partners in the mental health field, those individuals and families may be able to get the help that they need.
This has several impacts. First, it recognizes that police today are more than simply law enforcement, or they certainly should be, but we need to give them the tools to more effectively do their jobs and increase the safety of our community proactively, not just by reactively catching the bad guys. Second, we work to diffuse situations early that could get worse – the young adult on his way to a greater struggle with drugs, the teenage facing depression, or the person living in unsafe conditions before there is a health risk. The actions of this program increased the quality of life for Stafford residents and proactively made the town safer. It may be able to do the same in Bridgewater.
So what’s the cost? Stafford has done it through private partnerships and grant money – so no out of pocket cost to the taxpayers. Even if the program was included in the budget, it is not expensive to implement. Furthermore, it saved thousands of hours of police man-power as Stafford’s program demonstrated that when chronic problems were resolved through the help of the social workers, police were no longer responding to those residents’ houses with regularity. Thus, the officers were then free to address other issues in the township.
No program is magic and it can’t fix every problem. Residents would still need to be open to getting help, but isn’t it time to try something different? Sometimes the only thing a person in crisis needs is someone to reach out to them and offer them a lifeline. We should bring this program to Bridgewater and take a step towards making our community a safer and healthier place to live.
Check out a video about Stafford's program below.