Editorials, Opinion

Morgantown PD’s best new asset: a social worker

We’re excited to see the Morgantown Police Department has added its first police social worker to the force — something for which we have previously advocated. 

Kelly Rice is a licensed clinical social worker who earned her master’s degree in social work from West Virginia University. Her credentials more than speak for themselves: She has a background working with victims of mental health issues, domestic violence and addiction, and she also has experience with compassionate releases, criminal thinking, victim impact and crisis intervention. Rice previously worked as a drug treatment specialist for FCI Morgantown, a case manager for Hope Incorporated Shelter and as a social worker for the U.S. Penitentiary in Hazelton.  

We’ve said for years now that, as important as law enforcement officers are to our safety, not every emergency requires a police response. In fact, sometimes the presence of armed officers only makes a situation worse. 

But people rarely know what else to do besides call 911 when they are witnessing or are having a mental health or emotional crisis. Like when a bystander sees someone pacing up and down the sidewalk, muttering to themselves or shouting; or a couple arguing outside a restaurant, though it hasn’t turned physical; or a homeless person lying on the sidewalk in the middle of the day. Or when they themselves are having destructive thoughts and need help. 

These are all situations in which a social worker like Rice is more useful than a firearm, because while there is an emergency, there isn’t an imminent physical threat. And what the people experiencing the crisis need is someone who can de-escalate the situation and talk them through the problem or connect with them enough to steer them toward appropriate services. For too long, we have trained officers for the former while expecting them to do the latter. That’s why having a social worker on the force is long overdue. 

MPD and Rice are still figuring out her role within the department, and we expect they’ll be fine-tuning for quite a while. From what Rice has said, it appears she’s trying to get her information out there so she can be called directly in non-emergency situations. (She can be reached at krice@morgantownwv.gov or by phone at 304-282-7492.) But for calls that come through 911, it seems police will respond first and, after the scene is determined safe, bring Rice in later. 

Since Rice has been given her own vehicle to use, we hope she will deploy to known nonviolent incidents alongside police instead of being called later. We certainly understand MPD officers must make sure the scene is safe for her, but there will be some situations best resolved by immediately introducing someone who looks non-threatening and can de-escalate any tension. We also understand there is only one of her, so Rice will likely be in high demand. We hope, though, that if having a social worker on the force proves to be successful, more will be recruited in the near future.  

For decades, law enforcement officers have been asked to essentially be “social workers with guns” — to respond not just to the problem (crime), but to the person and the cause (poverty, mental health, addiction, etc.)  Perhaps Rice’s hiring indicates a new understanding within the Morgantown Police Department that not every emergency requires an armed response and that social workers can carry some of the burden police officers have borne for far too long.