by CRAIG COLEY
Melissa Stone’s gray polo shirt has a Bloomington Police Department (BPD) badge on one side and the words “Social Worker” on the other. She says it’s important that she gain the trust of the people she approaches. “I’ll introduce myself and say ‘I’m not an officer. I’m just a social worker. I can’t arrest you,’” Stone explains.
When Stone, 31, was hired in March, she was Indiana’s first police social worker. Now she is one of two. Her role is to offer sustained attention to people the police see again and again, people who are not violating the law but who do need some sort of intervention.
BPD Chief Michael Diekhoff says the majority of calls to the police involve people with underlying issues that sworn officers don’t have time to address. It may be a homebound senior who needs assistance or someone behaving strangely in a public park. They aren’t breaking the law, so there is little that police officers can do. “But if we can solve some kind of problem or issue in their life,” Diekhoff says, “they may have less contact with the police.”
Speaking to the Citizens Police Academy in September, Stone said she had 65 referrals and 251 interactions in the city from April to August.
A licensed social worker, Stone connects the people she sees with agencies that provide ongoing support—Area 10 Agency on Aging for seniors in need of services, for example, or Centerstone, which provides mental health and substance abuse support. Stone can tag people in the police system so that when police interact with that person, they know to call her for advice. Some people she encounters once; there are others she has continued to see since her first weeks on the job.
Before learning about the police social worker position, Stone was working as a confidential victim advocate at Indiana University. Previously, she counseled inmates with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility near Carlisle, Indiana. “This is perfect for me,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in crime and criminal justice and rooting for the underdog.”