At first, some in the community were skeptical of Bucks County’s plan to add social workers to work alongside municipal police departments. However, more than two years in, the program has been hailed as a success by police and human service officials.
The co-responder program rolled out in Bensalem Township, the county’s largest municipality, in 2020 and has expanded since.
The program pairs county social workers, who are titled co-responders, with police departments. The co-responders serve a cluster of communities. The responders go out on some calls with police or tackle follow-up requests to aid with mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and aging problems. The social workers, who have county cars and protective gear, are tasked with connecting those in crisis with relevant resources.
While police may show up once at the initial moment of need, the co-responders are following up weeks and months later, according to Walter Bynum, one of the co-responders.
“This program is really about connecting people to service,” said Bucks County Division of Human Services Director Rachael Neff.
The co-responders allow the county to create access for people to government and nonprofit services and let officers get back to police work.
Neff stated: “A goal is to divert individuals with primary social service needs from further penetration into the criminal justice system.”
Since the program began, there have been more than 1,100 referrals by the co-responders across the county.
Falls Township Chief of Police Nelson Whitney said the co-responder program has been “truly wonderful” and helps his department.
“For decades, we responded to calls for service involving mental health issues. If the person involved was not in crisis, often we drove away. We got them through the night, but didn’t really help them in the long-term. This is where our co-responders shine,” Whitney said.
Falls Township’s co-responder, Cara Gadzinski, takes part in departmental meetings and presents details on the program to officers.
Bensalem Township Public Safety Director William McVey also spoke highly of the program, noting it takes a burden off police and lets professionals deal with calls for people who need social services.
“Cops are spending less time on repeat calls, and we’re able to connect people in our community with a professional who can connect them to all these services,” he said.
Ivone Kovalsky, community engagement officer for Bucks County, said the programs expansion has been a success.
“I have been so lucky to be part of this team. I know what a great impact they have on our community,” she said.
Presently, there are eight co-responders working alongside 18 police departments in lower, central, and upper Bucks County.
Officials said they hope the program will expand in the future to include communities like Lower Makefield Township, Morrisville Borough, and New Hope Borough.
The county initially pledged to fund the co-responders for two years in each area they serve before the municipalities will have to take over, but Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a Democrat and social worker, said this week that the county is working on a way to fund these positions going forward.
“The work you do every day brings tears. I’m very grateful for all of it,” she said of the co-responders, adding that the police chiefs deserve credit for their support of the program.
The county’s co-responder program was presented at a policing conference in Europe recently as a way police and social services could work together.