As law enforcement begins to recruit social workers for crisis situations, police see bright spots, but training is needed – Twin Cities

Hector Matascastillo has a chip in his front tooth that reminds him of where he was almost two decades ago – suicidal and desperate for help.

During a snowstorm in January 2004, Matascastillo, a veteran of the Army Ranger, woke up from a dissociative flashback to find himself sitting in the snow on his front steps, facing a row of police officers. de Lakeville with guns pointed at him.

Through the haze of post-traumatic stress disorder, he thought they were enemy fighters. He credits the officers with not shooting him as he struggled to put down his own unloaded weapons. He chipped his tooth during this time while committing his own suicide.

Fast forward 17 years.

Hector Matascastillo, pictured in his St. Paul office on November 11, 2021, dons the helmet he wears when accompanying South Metro SWAT officers on mental health crisis calls. (Deanna Weniger / Pioneer Press)

In September, Matascastillo, now a psychotherapist, was this time on the other side. He stood with officers from the Dakota County South Metro SWAT in a stairwell at a West St. Paul apartment complex facing a suicidal man with a knife, talking to him about all the reasons he should choose the life.

The man surrendered after three hours and the incident is a positive example of what can happen when police and social workers team up. Departments that roam this mostly uncharted territory have found training to integrate social workers to be scarce and have adopted craft programs to meet their needs.

“There is no formal training for integrated social workers,” said Matascastillo. “It’s a bit of a mess, actually. My fear is that social workers will end up in a stalemate from which they cannot escape. “

He is currently writing a training program designed to help his colleagues better understand how to work with the police. A possible title? “A day in the life of,” he said. It will aim to teach social workers how police work and how to stay away if necessary.


In Ramsey County, plans for law enforcement to partner with social workers were underway nearly five years before George Floyd’s murder hit the headlines.

“Between 2006 and 2015, calls for mental health incidents doubled,” said Sgt. Justin Tiffany with the St. Paul Police Department. “We knew it was going to take a response from the law enforcement side on how best to mitigate some of these calls and connect them to the appropriate services.”

Hector Matascastillo, psychotherapist and crisis social worker for the South Metro SWAT team, speaks with a suicidal man holding a knife in September 2021 at an apartment complex in West St. Paul. A veteran of the St. Paul’s Army Rangers, who battled his own PTSD, Matascastillo stood there for three hours until the man put down his knife and surrendered. (Courtesy of Hector Matascastillo)

St. Paul Police has three social workers integrated into their community outreach and stabilization program.

The Maplewood Police Department began building a mental health awareness team in 2018 that paired specially trained officers with community paramedics. When they started doing their job, they found that an integrated social worker was needed. This month, they hired a second.

Civil unrest and the COVID pandemic have exacerbated mental instability for many. Matascastillo said the public’s issues affect first responders and therapists.

“We are losing therapists in droves across the United States,” he said. “We now have waiting lists. Everyone looks at their waiting list and says, “I can’t keep up. There is nervousness and people don’t do well with it.


How is an integrated social worker different from a crisis negotiator or case manager?

“Negotiators are very specific to the emergency,” said Lt. Mike Dugas of the Maplewood Police Department. “Our integrated social workers are trying to solve the whole problem.”

Working closely with the police, integrated social workers act as a bridge with mainstream social workers. They assess, often on site, the needs of the person in crisis. Their expertise helps them quickly put the person in touch with the best help, specific to the person’s needs. This is often more effective than an agent making a general reference to a social worker far removed from the initial incident.

As an example, Dugas spoke of a call in which a suicidal woman was unarmed and threatened no one else. Amy Kuusisto-Lathrop, a social worker hired in April in Ramsey County, was called to the scene and worked with the woman, connecting her with programs that could help her address the underlying causes of Their problems.

Another example was a woman who constantly called 911 about a domestic violence situation. After Kuusisto-Lathrop contacted her and put her in touch with case management and short-term counseling, her 911 calls disappeared.

In the last quarter, Maplewood police dealt with 200 people who were in some sort of crisis. Of these, 117 were related to mental health, 54 to substance abuse, 18 to medical issues, 13 to self-care or vulnerability issues, 11 to housing issues, and nine to relationship contacts.

Over the past three years, St. Paul Police has seen over 1,400 referrals to community services and mental health resources. Over the past six months, the ministry has launched an Access to Recovery program that connects people with chemical-related health concerns. This program has helped 60 people so far.

“With an integrated social worker in partnership with public safety, we are able to address and solve so many community issues and needs that we have never been able to do before,” said Dugas. “The positives have been overwhelming. “


But what about calls in which the person is armed and threatens to harm others?

Matascastillo said this is where policymakers need to understand that while police officers may not all have crisis negotiation skills, social workers generally lack tactical skills.

For Matascastillo, when he stood in the stairwell last September talking to the man with a knife, he wasn’t there alone. He was flanked by armored officers from the SWAT team. SWAT was there to make sure Matascastillo was not injured and to intervene if necessary. He said he was amazed to see the officers working.

“These guys are amazing,” he said. “I really respect them.”

Maplewood has taken precautions to protect its social workers.

“Our social worker has the same protective gear as our officers,” Dugas said. In order for the social worker to be in a dangerous scene, the authorization of a supervisor is required. “We’re not going to put her in a position that would put her in danger without significant security planning on it.”

St. Paul Police officials said they put safety first.

“Our social workers really never find themselves in dynamic situations, like these barricaded or armed individuals,” said Tiffany of the SPPD. “We are always very concerned about the safety of our social workers, and this is absolutely our priority.”


Ultimately, the taxpayer funds the integrated social workers. However, within the police service, some question whether integrated social workers contribute to the definition of the police.

The idea of ​​’funding the police’, a rallying cry after George Floyd’s death last year in Minneapolis, may in fact range from completely abolishing the police to reallocating funds to more humanitarian efforts. . Police departments in Ramsey County have so far found a way to bring in social workers without impacting the police budget.

“We are not replacing agents with social workers,” said Dugas.

Social workers in the Maplewood and St. Paul Police Departments are made possible through county grants or partnerships.

This means that even though social workers are integrated, their funding is not, as Tiffany explained: “We currently have three grants to support our programming,” he said. “Each of these is scheduled for a period of approximately three years. They expire at different times over the next two to three years. We are therefore constantly reviewing different financing options.


What do police and social workers want policy makers to understand?

“Social work is a very important aspect of emergency services,” said Dugas. “But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. “

Matascastillo himself has become a bridge between social workers, law enforcement and the patient. To political decision-makers, he suggests a dose of humility.

“Humble yourself,” he said. “Spend a day in the life of an agent before creating a policy that affects them. Ask them, “How is this going to affect you? Because their voice is not being heard right now. And we, as a community of civilians, need to hear from the professional doing the job.

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