Why One Mayor Funded a Police Social Worker Program

The Bloomington Police Department (BPD) had a growing issue on its hands.

With Indiana University bringing thousands of young adults to town and a significant number of residents experiencing homelessness, the BPD’s uniformed officers were increasingly dispatched to non-emergency disturbances that didn’t involve criminal activity.

These disturbances did, however, involve people who were struggling with mental health, substance abuse, and/or interpersonal conflicts.

It was clear the callers needed help, just not the kind of help officers are primarily trained to offer.

A disconnect from resources

While Bloomington, Indiana, has many support services, the BPD is often the first responder in challenging situations—putting the agency in a prime position to render aid.

Whether the calls for assistance in non-criminal situations were due to a lack of awareness of local services or the result of more complex issues, it was clear that BPD could benefit from social work expertise to reduce uniformed officers’ caseloads and get residents the assistance they needed.

Collaboration to evolve the department

At the same time that the BPD was looking to address the issue, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton was encountering a community desire for alternatives to the traditional response by police.

“Bloomington is a progressive community,” says Hamilton. “We care deeply about being an inclusive and sustainable community. We also, of course, care deeply about being a safe community, and it was clear that our police departments needed to keep evolving.”  

Hamilton had already worked closely with BPD Chief Mike Diekhoff and other department members to establish several programs, such as a downtown resource officer unit and a community policing task force.

Interested in expanding the BPD’s range of capacities, the mayor and the department began exploring how social workers and law enforcement could collaborate to better serve the community.

Providing the community with the support it needed

When discussing social work and policing, there are multiple shapes a program can take. Hamilton could have gone outside of the police department to create a mental health response unit, as some cities have done, but ultimately went with an embedded approach. A civilian social worker would be hired at the police department to be an internal resource and respond to calls.

While one motivation for housing the social worker program within the police department was the mayor’s belief that his constituents would approve of the program, Hamilton also wanted to evolve the BPD to better serve the community.

“Thinking about my police department 20 years from now, I asked: Do we want a police department that is more and more focused on violence situations,” said Hamilton, “Or do we want one that can respond in lots of different ways to address to public safety problems in the most de-escalating way we can?”  

The mayor ultimately thought that a more well-rounded police department would be better for his community, and the BPD hired social worker Melissa Stone in 2019. The department added two more social workers in 2021—LaSaundra McCoy and Mallory Phagan. Additionally, the department’s non-badged officers include four community resource specialists, who also work to establish connections and build trust in the community.

Tips for getting local support for social workers

For a police department looking to implement a social work program, consider the following when planning your proposal.

Start small to prove viability.

Funding is always an issue for a police department. Talk with your city council and mayor, but make sure to keep your initial request small. Then, back up your work with measurable results to expand the program.

For Bloomington, an embedded social work program was the simplest when compared to other possible arrangements. The BPD also started with a limited scope, hiring just one social worker until they had stronger processes and could demonstrate results.

Highlight the cost savings and improved efficiency.

Being able to offload some of the responsibilities of your department’s uniformed officers will cut down on personnel costs and ensure your department has enough staff to meet your community’s needs.

“There’s kind of a bidding war going on among cities and communities for trained sworn officers,” said Hamilton.  

Rather than struggling to hire more sworn officers and adequately train them on mental health, your existing officers can focus on critical incidents—while relatively less expensive social workers can tackle the issues within their scope.

Plus, social workers can provide more effective specialized help to those who need it. Having social workers as partners in the police department helps officers respond to such situations as productively and proactively as possible.

Don’t forget about the added utility of social workers

When you add social workers to your team, you also gain knowledgeable experts who can support officers’ mental health. Embedded social workers can provide training to officers on how to handle stress, substance abuse, or other topics—while also connecting officers to resources on a personal level.

Social workers can also serve as community liaisons, attending outreach events and fostering connections with the department. Where some residents might be wary of uniformed officers, social workers might bridge the gap. They can be involved in meetings, reports, and other outreach activities that increase community trust and local law enforcement visibility.


Bloomington’s embedded social worker program has been a success for the police department, mayor, and public alike. Since being hired in 2019, social worker Melissa Stone measurably lightened the load of sworn officers and worked with the community to address the root causes of 911 calls not connected to criminal activity.

“We started with one, and it was so effective that we’re now up to three full-time social workers,” says Hamilton. “I believe the program is an essential tool as our police department continues to evolve.”

Interested in learning details about the BPD social worker program? Hear more from BPD themselves:

Posted on Jul 27, 2021