Pick up the phone and call the police.

That’s a rare occurrence but one that became quite familiar for Suffolk University graduate students conducting research on police-mental health collaborations across the United States and Canada.

YouthConnect, an advocacy and intervention program of the Boys & Girls Clubs in collaboration with the Boston Police Department, requested the research (PDF), which was conducted as a service learning project by students in a quantitative analysis course taught by Sociology Professor Erika Gebo.

Community health & crime prevention

The student researchers found that, of 335 population centers studied, 30, or 9 percent, had integrated programs, and five were developing collaborations. The study reported that “police-social worker collaborations … are considered essential to community health and crime prevention” for many departments in Quebec and Ontario provinces. In the United States, the existing collaborations are more common in the Northeast and on the West Coast. However, the nature of these partnerships differs from the Boston model.

“Utilizing statistical analyses, students assessed commonalities across programs and identified major themes,” said Gebo, interim chair of the Sociology Department, and director of Crime & Justice Studies graduate program.

Comparing programs

A comprehensive list of police-social worker/mental health collaborations, with contacts, was provided to YouthConnect so that the agency could see how its collaboration with the Boston Police compares to similar efforts in North America. The information will help facilitate networking and information sharing among these entities.

“Our clients [BPD and YouthConnect] thought the information was really helpful to connect with the few other cities that provided wrap-around clinical services to youth and their families,” said Gebo. “They also thought the information was useful for strategic planning and funding solicitation.”

Students collaborating in small groups collected data from U.S. and Canadian cities with populations of at least 100,000 and 150,000, respectively. Each student contacted police departments in more than 25 cities, and tapped their French-speaking skills for the Quebec calls.

After calling police departments in both countries, the students developed spreadsheets, documented the information they gathered, ran statistical analyses, and created a final report of their survey findings.

Of the 335 total cities they contacted, students found 30 collaborations where licensed social worker/mental health clinicians were integrated into the police department in some manner. An additional five locations had collaborations in development.

Valuable research report

The 10-page final report has become a valuable research tool for YouthConnect, whose innovative partnership with the BPD places licensed clinical social workers in police stations throughout Boston, providing services and support to at-risk youth and their families.

“The report created by the Suffolk students allows YouthConnect’s leadership to deepen its knowledge of other significant police/social worker collaborations in the United States and Canada and strengthen its clinical model,” said YouthConnect Executive Director Andrea Perry

“This body of data puts YouthConnect’s effort in a better context on a national landscape and really lays the foundation for future opportunities.”

The Boston Police Department also benefitted.

“The BPD has a long history of partnering with academic institutions in the Boston area,” said Jennifer Maconochie, director of strategic initiatives & policies in the office of the Boston Police commissioner. “This project was unique in that it was a partnership with a university and a non-profit partner to determine what other similar partnerships are out there.

“It confirmed what we suspected: that YouthConnect is unique in its relationship with the Police Department, and in the way that services are provided to high-risk youth and their families. We learned that, while other police/mental health partnerships exist, they differ in focus and impact.”

Robust public policy resource

“This research on behalf of the Boston Police Department and YouthConnect is an important example of Suffolk University’s commitment to collaborations that identify, understand, and solve public problems,” said Susan Spurlock, director of Suffolk University Public Policy & Practice HUB., which coordinates the many public policy efforts streaming from the University’s Law School, Sawyer Business School and College of Arts & Sciences.

“This pioneering police-social services partnership serving youth in Boston can now inform a wide network of police departments and community agencies across the United States and Canada,” said Spurlock. “This is a direct result of the three way partnership involving Professor Gebo’s student researchers.”

Team effort

While DeAngela Golden-Venable said that making cold calls is unusual for her generation, she eventually grew comfortable with using the phone to identify the right contact person within a department and gathering information. She also valued the teamwork involved.

“Part of our success was because we were always communicating with each other,” said Golden-Venable, who is studying crime & justice studies and public administration. “Working closely with others is a transferable skill I know I will be able to use in other aspects of my life.”

Lucia Ciccarello enjoyed the teamwork because “it brings out different perspectives of how people look at things.”

Therapeutic connection

Working on this project also gave her a new outlook when it comes to police-social worker/mental health collaborations.

“It was good to see that programs like this exist,” said Ciccarello, who is followng a crime & justice studies and mental health counseling track.  “They provide an important and therapeutic connection between the police and the community.”

Suffolk students presented their final report at Boston Police headquarters, and it was shared with the police command staff, YouthConnect, and several cities looking to develop police department/mental health agency collaborations.

“This service learning project was successful because the students worked hard and worked together,” said Gebo. “The professional lessons they learned are valuable to them now and in the future.”

—Tony Ferullo