ST. LOUIS — Less than eight hours after two men forced their way into her house, choked her mother in front of her and put a gun inside the woman’s mouth, Shamika Richardson was answering questions, as police looked on, about her education plans, access to transportation, child care and career aspirations.
The 19-year-old seemed bewildered by the visit from St. Louis officers who were accompanied by two volunteer community health workers interested in connecting her with social services.
She wasn’t expecting the police to return to her house after the gunmen burst in searching for her brother. She hadn’t called the police. And she wasn’t used to officers doing much more beyond responding to an emergency.
“It’s kind of weird,” she said, shivering outside her door on a cold December night. “But it’s really thoughtful and nice.”
Richardson was the first of a handful of calls for service that night featuring a police Mobile Crisis Prevention Team that included volunteers eager to provide crime victims with access to the help they may need. The idea of pairing officers with the volunteers is modeled after a program in New Haven, Connecticut, called Child Development Community Policing.
In St. Louis, the city has piloted the concept twice. Once for several weeks in the summer focusing on children after a call for service. For the winter session, the department and city leaders changed the approach slightly to focus on more than just children and to provide a more immediate response.
Both times the program centered on the Sixth District in north St. Louis — the city’s most violent.
Police Capt. Perri Johnson said it will take time to determine the effectiveness of the partnership with the social workers. He hopes to know more once there is more data to analyze.
“We want to focus on the social issues before they become criminal issues,” Johnson said.
City leaders began looking for programs like the New Haven model after the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed the police department’s policies and procedures following the Ferguson protests and recommended additional community engagement programs, said Wilford Pinkney, director of the city’s Office of Children, Youth and Families.
Mayor Lyda Krewson appointed Pinkney, a 20-year veteran of the New York City police department, in September.
He said he believes police officers play the role of a social worker in a sense, but are trained mainly to recognize mental health issues and how to de-escalate situations.
“This program addresses the root causes of crime,” Pinkney said. “A lot of a person’s actions are dictated by a lack of stability. That’s why the first goal has to be connecting people to the services they need.”
The city is hoping to attract grants to fund the program, he said.
Not part of the red tape
For now, the Mobile Crisis Prevention Team is keeping focused on its mission — to connect as many people as possible with the services they need, said Ryan Smith, a coordinator for the St. Louis Integrated Health Network.
Smith is one of seven volunteers from the agency who have worked with officers this winter. In the summer, there were four, two from his agency and two community mental health liaisons with a Barnes-Jewish Hospital behavioral health program.
All belong to the Community Health Workers Coalition, whose members are graduates of a similarly named program at St. Louis Community College. It now has 135 graduates from its 12-week program, Smith said, and they come from all walks of professional and personal lives. Some are mental health workers. Some are substance abuse counselors. Some work in the criminal justice system, at pediatric hospitals and for private therapy services.
“We’re trying to heal the community from the inside out,” Smith said. “We’re not just going to guide you to the water, we’re going to show you how to drink and use it. But we don’t want to be part of the red tape.”
Smith paired up with another volunteer, Phillip Brooks, during the shift where they encountered Richardson. Both men rode in separate marked police cars with two officers in each. They spoke with victims only after officers had secured a scene and ensured it was safe. They spent time in between calls following up on incidents like Richardson’s.
After leaving the Richardson house, the team arrived at a home where a man had kicked out the mother of his two young children. As Smith and Brooks approached, an officer was carrying plastic bags full of her clothes, personal hygiene items and baby supplies to a police SUV. She was carrying her infant in a pumpkin seat in the cold. The officers were taking them to a hotel for the night. Her older child, a toddler, cried in his father’s arms.
Smith slipped the woman a card as she got into the SUV and encouraged her to call him as soon as she got to a phone.
“She said she would,” he said. “For someone like her, we want to connect her with child care and whatever services she needs, but now is not the time to have that conversation.”
The last call of the evening was a disturbance involving a man who accused his mother of stealing his electronic benefit transfer card. Dispatchers told police they heard a woman screaming in the background. Smith, Brooks and the four officers filed into the one-story home where the woman was sitting on her couch. Her son stood nearby.
“You sound like an angel,” she told Smith as he introduced himself, saying he was there to help. “I just knew this was my lucky day. I’ve been waiting for this.”
She tearfully described how she’s a 57-year-old veteran who’s been struggling to care for her mentally ill son, and that she no longer felt safe with him living in her home. She said she didn’t steal his card but believed he lost it and was blaming her.
Meanwhile, an officer who’s part of the department’s Crisis Intervention Team spoke with the son in an effort to calm him. Officers with that unit are trained to assist the mentally ill, but their role is different from that of the volunteers, Smith said.
“Police officers do a lot of what we do, because we’re all dealing with these individuals,” he said. “But we don’t ask questions about what happened. We don’t do the investigation. We’re here to let them do their job and we do ours, but as a team.”
What the research says
New Haven’s program launched in 1991 at the height of the crack epidemic, according to Hilary Hahn, project director of the Yale Childhood Violence Trauma Center.
“We realized then that we’re not going to police our way out of the problem, so we have to think about some more innovative strategies because we’re seeing the same kids in their teens and as adults as perpetrators and victims,” she said. “And we weren’t getting them into a clinical setting until they were way further down the line when it could be much harder to intervene.”
Research on the program’s impact is limited, but some measurable data exists for domestic violence calls.
Researchers found that families that received visits in 2006 and 2007 were more likely to call the police about new domestic incidents in the ensuing 12 months. And those new calls were more likely to focus on verbal altercations or violations of court orders instead of violence that flared.
Researchers also found that families that received visits felt safer and more positive about the police than families that received standard 911 police service, and were more likely to get mental health and other support services for their children.
It was generally found that pairing officers with social workers greatly increased morale for both, as each felt more effective at their jobs, Hahn said.
“They feel more effective intervening with kids who they otherwise might feel they have little to offer,” she said.
The same appears to be happening for officers in St. Louis.
Officer Gary Ruffin rode with Smith the night they visited Richardson’s house.
“People are responding to us in a lot more positive way,” he said. “And I didn’t know a lot of these programs existed, so it’s helped me out a lot. Being on this side, when I get a call, I have to take a different mindset. This is allowing us to be there for everybody involved, and people have been thanking us.”
The volunteers meet each week to discuss their cases and their progress. It’s common for their interventions to begin shortly after leaving someone’s home, as was the case with Richardson, who called Brooks the next day.
He’s since connected her to a toy drive for her 2-year-old son and to crime victim services.