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'I don't feel comfortable accompanying police anywhere,' says social worker about new plan

Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Social workers gather on the steps of City Hall Thursday.

City Hall proposals to have social workers and mental health professionals help police in the collisions of law enforcement and people in crisis is drawing fire. Western New York Agents for Change said it is all a bad idea.

There are two proposals in City Hall. Mayor Brown's plan is for a team of social workers to work daytime with the new Behavioral Health Team of cops, starting next month. Common Councilmembers want a 24/7 team of mental health professionals stationed in headquarters who would go to the scene of crises, like that on Saturday, when a mentally ill man was shot by an officer.

University at Buffalo Social Work School Dean Nancy Smyth was on the steps of City Hall with other social workers to say cops and social workers do it differently and together won't work.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"Who's responding in traditional police ways and that's where the conflict comes in. And they're people who have more power in that situation. I'm a social worker showing up. I don't have a gun. Immediately, if that situation goes bad, I'm not sure I know what's going to be going on. Whereas if I'm with a crisis team of crisis and health professionals, I'm in a situation where we are in control of what tools we roll out," Smyth said.

Another opponent is Danielle Johnson, chair of the Common Council's Police Advisory Board. Johnson and the board favor major changes in the Buffalo Police Department.

"This proposed plan is putting social workers in the position of having to, simultaneously, calm and attend to the person experiencing mental health concerns while also potentially having to de-escalate the police," Johnson said. "That is way too much pressure to put on one person who already is taxed. And as we know, social workers deal with a huge amount of burnout."

Kathryn Franco supports Daniel's Law, which would call for counselors, rather than cops, to answer a call of someone in crisis. Franco said she doesn't want to work with cops.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"As a social worker, I don't feel comfortable accompanying police anywhere," Franco said. "So when we look at policies and we talk about Daniel's Law, when we talk about Wille Henley who just happened to be shot in our city, Buffalo, over the weekend, I can't get behind it as a social worker because the policies do not reflect what we want to see in our community."

Agents for Change wants an advisory team to control who is called in when there is a 911 crisis call, as well as training for call-takers and dispatchers so calls go to cops and social workers separately.

In a statement, Mayor Byron Brown defended his contract with Endeavor Health Services to work with the new police Behavioral Health Team. His statement said a social worker and a cop at the scene of a personal crisis will produce better outcomes. However, some of the social workers argued it would produce worse outcomes.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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