In a remarkable example of hands-on learning, social work graduate students are working directly with local police as part of their training at Adelphi’s Hudson Valley Center. For both police and students, it has been a win-win experience.
Police blotters, sirens and patrols are all in a day’s work for two Adelphi graduate students pursuing their master’s degrees in social work at the center of an innovative pilot program to keep nonviolent individuals out of the criminal justice system and enhance their quality of life.
Tineisha Slater, BSW ’22, who expects to complete her MSW this year, and Brendan Colson, who is scheduled to earn his MSW in 2024, are doing their social work practicum in the City of Newburgh Police Department in Orange County, New York, connecting those who are homeless, experiencing substance abuse or mental health issues, or facing other challenges, with community resources.
The practicum reflects the School of Social Work’s commitment to providing students with powerful hands-on learning opportunities as well as its deep connections to local communities throughout New York state.
Slater and Colson, residents of Orange County and students at Adelphi’s Hudson Valley Center, began their practicum in August 2022. They work alongside 64 police officers as part of a program that aligns with New York State Executive Order 203, which requires local governments to adopt policing reform plans to maintain public safety while building mutual trust and respect between police and the communities they serve.
“Having Tineisha and Brendan here has been amazing,” said City of Newburgh police sergeant Jessica Brooks, an eight-year veteran of the force who is responsible for community affairs. Brooks advocated for the partnership with Adelphi’s School of Social Work, developing the program with Lorell Berrios, MSW, and Aaron Kesselman, the School’s assistant directors of field education.
Brooks is “thankful” her proposal was approved by the City of Newburgh Council and administration, and that the first two social work students in the program “are so well prepared and such a good fit.” Upon joining the department, Colson and Slater underwent a weeklong onboarding process to become familiar with police department policies, procedures and protocols.
Mutual Respect, Positive Outcomes
Brooks said, “The officers really respect Tineisha and Brendan and have come to rely on them to work with people whose behavior may be disturbing to the public, but not violent or criminal. Our officers are on the streets and really get to know these individuals. They care about them and want the best for them.”
The police officers can now refer individuals in need of comprehensive assistance to the social workers, who identify appropriate resources, provide counseling, and make follow-up calls or visits. As word of their services has spread among residents, individuals have begun to self-refer, walking into the police department to seek help. Sometimes, Colson and Slater accompany the police on calls involving people exhibiting behavioral health issues.
Brooks said bringing the social work component into policing “helps us get to the root of many of the problems people in our community are facing.” She added, by way of example, “Arresting the same person repeatedly for violating the open-container law doesn’t help them or our community. Connecting them with the services they need to address their alcoholism and any related difficulties can.” She said Colson and Slater provide a deliberate, coordinated and proactive approach to dealing with a person’s issues, reducing the need for police involvement and crisis intervention.
Lessons Learned, Lives Changed
“I’ve learned so much from this practicum,” Colson said. “As a society, we expect police to do everything … including taking on the role of mental health counselor. The officers in Newburgh do a great job and are eager to blend our expertise with theirs to better serve their community.”
Colson said police officers get him and Slater involved in cases where they feel the traditional justice system can’t be of help. “A lot of time, arrest doesn’t solve the problem. A person may be jobless, homeless, using drugs, mentally unstable, doing self-harm and/or causing domestic disturbances. Tineisha and I are able to find community resources dedicated to addressing these issues and provide the follow-up often necessary get the client through the process.”
Colson, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminology, said it’s been “very satisfying to know I’ve made a difference.” He recounted a case where a client was experiencing anxiety and depression after losing his job and being behind on bills, and was in a state of general despair. “I connected him with a behavioral health service urgent care that serves patients regardless of their ability to pay. He’s been able to get counseling and attends weekly meetings.” One officer asked the social workers for help after making several domestic disturbance visits to a family stressed by joblessness and financial challenges. “I was able to provide the officer with information to pass along about couples counseling that could help the parents cope with their situation.”
Colson said the experience has made him realize that police are the first responders to almost everything, much of it not involving criminality. “It’s eye-opening how many people who go through mental health crises come in contact with law enforcement,” he said. “The police officers we work with definitely are receptive to having professionals with our expertise on their team.”
Going the Extra Mile
Slater, who works nights and weekends at the police department, shared many of the observations made by Colson. “It’s very humbling and encouraging when the police officers stop by my desk, call or text to discuss a person in the community with whom they’ve had interaction. They really care about these people and want to do everything possible to get them the help they need.”
Slater said, “Whether we’re going on patrol with an officer, following up on referrals or handling walk-ins, our job is to learn as much as possible about an individual’s circumstances and help them understand what services are available in the community.” The two Adelphi students also stay in touch with clients to make sure they’re going to doctor appointments, taking prescribed medications, attending counseling sessions or otherwise following the steps necessary to improve their situation.
She recalls a particularly rewarding experience, when a police officer asked for help with a family in domestic turmoil. “They had a newborn, had recently moved to Orange County and the mom wasn’t in a healthy state of mind,” she said. “I connected them to resources, informed them that grandma could get paid for watching the baby, that transportation was available, and coached her through the process.” The woman has found a job and is taking advantage of support services. “She recently told me that when I made the initial call, she wasn’t going to answer the phone because she didn’t recognize the number. She said she was so grateful she did and thanked me for being so helpful.”
Partnership Is a Win-Win
Philip Rozario, PhD, interim Dean of Adelphi’s School of Social Work, said faculty and staff “work tirelessly to create new partnerships with human service organizations that can provide students opportunities to develop their competencies.” He added, “Social workers bring a holistic person-in-environment perspective that can provide a fuller understanding of the lives and behaviors of human beings,” assistance particularly valuable when police—already stretched thin—are faced with situations beyond their scope and training.