KANSAS CITY, MO — The Kansas City Police Department’s Social Services Program, which stations a social worker at all six patrol divisions across the city, faces possible discontinuation as the department adjusts to a $26 million budget cut for fiscal year 2021-22.
The decision to cut the program comes as social workers have been in the national spotlight recently, with calls to reform police departments and invest in community programs that focus on jobs, affordable housing, and mental health services for underserved populations.
Sgt. Jake Becchina, a public information officer and member of the KCPD for 17 years, said the department faces decisions about where to pare down resources as they work with the new budget. “One of the obvious ones . . . right off the top would be the Social Services Program,” he said.
“A large budget cut portion would take a lot of resources away from some of those elective things that we consider to be so vital, but that are still less vital than responding when you call 911,” he added.
Kansas City was the first major metropolitan city to staff social workers as part of police deployment, according to Becchina. They announced the program in 2018, with aims to embed a social worker in each of their six patrol divisions. 2019 was the first full year all six workers were officially active.
While the social workers were initially contractors funded by a donation from a local Kansas City family, 2020 was the first year the Kansas City Police Department took over full funding of the program and the workers became full-time employees.
“There are a lot of people dealing with issues in Kansas City that are frankly not the job of police to address: family problems, poverty, addiction and more . . . Social workers can address such issues in a way that brings lasting, positive change,” Kansas City Police Chief Richard Smith said in a 2018 blog post announcing the program.
Police officers will refer social workers to a scene to support families in need of assistance. From the program’s inception in 2018 to June 14, 2020, the social workers have been referred 3,074 times, according to Becchina.
Lindsay Moran, a licensed master social worker (LMSW) stationed in Kansas City’s metro patrol division, says the city’s program is unique.
“We respond to 911 calls with them . . . They are our partners . . . we’re a package deal. And so that’s something that we’re really proud of,” she said. Tori Cawman, another Licensed Master Social Worker stationed in the central patrol division, added that other social workers in police departments are typically brought in from an outside agency as opposed to embedded in the force.
One social worker is embedded at each division: One in Clay County, one in Platte County, and four in Jackson County. Moran added that the needs of each station are specific to each part of the city they cover.
According to Becchina, Kansas City is “almost certainly facing a record year of homicides,” with 151 total homicides from January 1 to October 19, according to police data. The previous annual record for the city was in 1993, with 153 homicides.
“Our city is wild,” Moran said. “Our non-fatal shootings are astronomical. And we are also in a year that we are seeing child victims of homicide as well.” In situations where families are in danger, the social workers help to relocate the families to safe spaces.
Aside from relocation, the social workers also work with victim and non-victim witnesses. “We’ve been pretty busy between six of us,” Cawman added.
The Kansas City fiscal year for 2021-22 begins on May 1. Aside from the Social Services Program, the department is considering cutting the Helicopter Unit, a Traffic Enforcement Squad, Community Interaction Officers, School Resource Officers, and the Police Athletic League, aiming for a reduction of about 400 employees, Smith said in a recent blog post.
When asked about the future of the program, Moran and Cawman have yet to hear a definitive answer. “I think it’s a lot of avoidance,” Moran said.
Despite the program’s uncertain future, Moran remains hopeful: “What we’re hearing from our end is that our chief vehemently believes in this, he is so behind us and so supportive of us.”
“We are surrounded by support and expectation that we get to stay. We’re just kind of at the mercy of the city and figuring out how that goes . . . but it’s all about the dollar,” she added.
Editor’s note: Because of the pandemic, we will be featuring stories from our student journalists reporting from other parts of the country periodically.
Originally hailing from Kansas City, Missouri, Elizabeth Gerson is a recent graduate from Stanford University where she received a double-major in Psychology and Communication. She began her career focused in editorial, writing for publications such as The Stanford Daily, mindbodygreen and the San Francisco Chronicle. After her time with the Chronicle’s digital-forward publication, SFGate, she became increasingly fascinated with the intersection of media and technology with a focus in audience development. She has since worked in audience development and content strategy roles at media startups, including Thrive Global and theSkimm, and hopes to continue to understand and shape how audiences are grown and retained across platforms. She plans on working in a space where she can help solve the problem of mismatched incentives between tech and media, and is driven by reshaping the future of the media industry.