East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) Social Worker Taylor Knickerbocker gave an overview to City Council on Tuesday, May 16, of her responsibilities and updates on how the department will approach people experiencing mental health crises going forward.
ELPD Chief Kim Johnson introduced the discussion during the Council meeting, saying the department created the social worker position following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. He called Knickerbocker a “rockstar” and said she offers services that police officers cannot – including acting as a counselor to officers. He also expressed a desire that ELPD add a second social worker.
Prior to taking over the role, Knickerbocker worked on a crisis management team where she evaluated individuals experiencing mental health crises. She also worked eight hours each week with the Battle Creek Police Department. Knickerbocker found her passion for police social work in this role.
“I found that was where my heart was,” she said.
Knickerbocker inquired about the possibility of working full time in Battle Creek, but the police department didn’t have a position available. So, she looked elsewhere. This search brought her to East Lansing, where she has worked since last August.
During her presentation, Knickerbocker said she tries to interact with the community as much as she can and typically ends up in a police car to do outreach each day. She usually works Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but takes on a few later shifts each month to build relationships with officers working late shifts.
Much of Knickerbocker’s work involves responding to referrals from officers or members of the public to check on people who may be at risk of having a mental health crisis. Knickerbocker encouraged members of the public to email her if they know someone in need of assistance. She can be reached at email@example.com.
So far this year, Knickerbocker has received 264 referrals. Last year, the department received 458.
She said most of these referrals are for Person Requiring Treatment (PRT), which officers initiate. She also often responds to cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault, family issues or homelessness.
Knickerbocker also works with Community Mental Health (CMH). She said the agency may alert her of an individual who may be in crisis and she will go with officers to check in on the person. Knickerbocker’s presence can be calming in these situations.
“I think it’s kind of well known that softer clothes are more approachable” than traditional police uniforms, she said.
Sometimes, city entities request Knickerbockers assistance. She said she’s assisted the library and Prime Time Seniors Program with homeless individuals and goes on housing inspections if a mental health concern is involved. She has also helped train the fire department on de-escalation.
De-escalation tactics are utilized by police and fire fighters to resolve incidents without using force, if possible.
Looking ahead, Knickerbocker said ELPD is working with CMH to develop telehealth services for officers. This will allow officers to speak with CMH workers when responding to people in crisis if Knickerbocker is not working.
“It’s a 15-minute tops discussion to have an intervention,” she explained. “We can discuss next steps for treatment, if they should be dropped off at CMH, if the officer is able to do a PRT [medical referral]. Do they need to go to the hospital?”
Having police frequently responding to mental health concerns without a social worker has been a common complaint at East Lansing Independent Police Oversight Commission meetings. Knickerbocker said most days, CMH has 24-hour coverage for officers to have a FaceTime-type conversation on how to handle a situation.
ELPD and Michigan State University Department of Police and Public Safety (DPPS) are teaming up to create a mobile crisis unit. This unit will send two Crisis Intervention Team officers and a social worker to respond to mental health concerns – primarily welfare checks. Knickerbocker is hopeful this team can debut in the next couple months, when students are still away for the summer and the call volume is not as high.
Knickerbocker explained to Council an important part of her job is helping to maintain officer wellness. She holds a master’s degree in social work, a degree held by many therapists, and said she is sure to frequently hold conversations with officers to ensure they are doing well.
“If we’re not OK, we can’t take care of people,” she said.
Following Knickerbocker’s presentation, interim City Manager Randy Talifarro thanked her for her work, saying officers have come to really appreciate having her on the team. He said the job is difficult because it requires working with people at their lowest moments.
“I worked in an emergency room when they eliminated a lot of the in-patient mental health care,” Talifarro said. “To see the surge of the people coming into the emergency rooms in crisis, I think most people would be shocked to know how they’re at capacity.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said it’s important to have someone within ELPD that can address non-criminal but still serious matters. Additionally, she said, mental health has been a top concern among the teens she’s spoken to while developing a youth commission within the city.
“I think that mental health is kind of our post-pandemic pandemic,” Gregg said.