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In The 1980s, St. Louis Police Partnered With Social Workers — Only To Abandon The Effort

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"St. Louis on the Air" recently highlighted St. Louis' soon-to-launch Cops and Clinicians effort. On Monday's show we'll look back at another collaborative program that operated in the city four decades ago.

Looking back on her long career in mental health and crisis intervention, Amy Hilgemann remembers the job she had in the early 1980s as among the most fulfilling work she ever did. At the time, she directed Crisis Intervention Services, a collaboration with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

The experimental, United Way-funded program ran for about 3½ years under the oversight of the Magdala Foundation, a local organization focused on serving socially and intellectually disadvantaged people. Police officers were empowered to hand off certain situations to a dedicated group of six social workers, including Hilgemann, whom they could call on from 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

And as Hilgemann recalls it, the program got quite a few rave reviews — both from community members and some people in the police department.

“We would deal with a problem that the police had been dealing with for like five years, and they’d never call the police again,” Hilgemann told St. Louis on the Air.

But when the initial funding stream came to an end, the program ended. Tom Mangogna, president and CEO of the Magdala Foundation, points to the police department’s lack of investment in it, despite its many fans, as the main cause of the program’s demise.

“The police department just refused to fund it,” Mangogna said, adding that department brass told him they did not have the money.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Hilgemann about what the work with St. Louis police looked like four decades ago, and how it compares to the city’s soon-to-launch Cops and Clinicians program, which the talk show highlighted earlier this month.

Hilgemann explained that when Crisis Intervention Services first got its start, the city police department had nine districts, and CIS had offices in two of them — one in north St. Louis and the other in south St. Louis. The social workers also carried police radios so that officers could communicate with them and ask social workers to meet them at particular encounters.

“The police officers usually came out and met us and gave us a description of what the encounter was,” Hilgemann recalled. “So we would go in with them, they would introduce us to the family or the individual, and usually they’d stay a few minutes just to make sure everything was calm, and then they would leave.”

CIS dealt with all kinds of situations — from following up with mentally ill people on next steps, to helping people who had walked away from nursing homes, to tense neighborhood disputes.

“[If] two or three families were having a big commotion out in the street and the police were called, usually what we did on those, because there were so many people involved, is we had the paddy wagon come out and we brought everybody to the station. And then we would just have a big group meeting,” Hilgemann said.

She also remembers taking some of the load off other emergency workers, such as paramedics.

“There’s people who call the police a lot, and there’s people who call for ambulances a lot, and it may or may not be for a need, and they would give us those cases,” Hilgemann explained. “And we were very successful in ameliorating why people would call the police.”

They also made a point to follow up on each of their calls within five to seven days, ensuring people received the help they needed.

Despite this success, the program ended after about 3½ years.

“When that [initial federal] money ran out, then [the police department] didn’t want to pay for it. … They didn’t even want to ask for the money for it,” Hilgemann said.

She’d love to see police departments across the country take a lesson from the past in this age of renewed attention to police resources. And in St. Louis, she worries the soon-to-launch Cops and Clinicians program may be lacking.

“It’s just a mindset that existed then, and it exists now,” Hilgemann said. “The [current] police department could have set up a program like this [past one], but they didn’t want to, because they didn’t want to spend the money. So what do they do? They have a social worker ride around with a police officer. That defeats the whole purpose. Who decides what calls are taken? Who decides how long the social worker stays on the call? Who’s in charge? The police officer. So that’s not a crisis program.”

In this age of renewed calls for police reform and defunding of police, what do you think is the best path forward? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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