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Norwalk Police look to ARPA-funded ‘game changer’

(File photo)

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Police would like social workers to begin assisting them, in a grant-funded one-year pilot program.

Recovery Network of Programs would be hired in a $216,000 contract to emulate services that have been highly successful in Stamford, providing bilingual social workers – one full-time and one part-time – to work with Norwalk Police, Chief Thomas Kulhawik said Tuesday. It would be funded by federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money.

Police departments around the country have been studying options for dealing with mental health calls, which sometimes result in “negative impacts,” Kulhawik said Tuesday to the Public Safety & General Government Committee. Consequently, in some departments, social workers or “other folks” help “deal with some individuals who had ongoing issues that weren’t being properly dealt with the system that’s currently in place.” Sometimes they accompany police on calls, sometimes they respond to the call themselves and sometimes they work with people afterwards.

NPD looked into it, and Norwalk Police Deputy Chief James Walsh spoke to the Stamford department, getting positive reviews about the Recovery Network, according to Kulhawik.

“They had great success with dealing with individuals with substance abuse, with mental health issues, a variety of issues,” the “frequent guests” that police officers struggle to handle, Kulhawik said.

After further discussions with Norwalk Chief of Social Services Lamond Daniels and his staff, “We basically ended up settling on Recovery Network as the was the best choice for us and the quickest that we can put into place,” Kulhawik said. “… It’s an exciting program to bring to the city. I think it’s a benefit, not only for the community but for the police.”

“In my mind, it’s a game changer. The research is clear around ‘this model can make an impact in communities,’” Daniels said.

Recovery Network is regional and “brings a wealth and breadth of resources” so if Norwalk doesn’t have a needed service, “our residents now will have direct access and preference to their wide network of services,” Daniels said. “I think that’s the key.”

Further, Recovery would “ensure that transportation is not a barrier,” Daniels said. “The extensive waitlist, that we all know so well in the mental health community, is not a waitlist.”

Recovery would track data metrics to show if it’s effective and making a difference, Daniels said.

“In a year’s time, we can come back to really dig deep in what the data is telling us,” Daniels said. “And then you know, the goal is to think about … how do we sustain this program,” like any other pilot program.

It would continue as part of the Norwalk Police Department’s operating budget, Kulhawik said.

Public Safety & General Government Committee Chairwoman Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) said there may be grant funding to support it after the first year. Kulhawik said Stamford “has received significant grant funding” as part of the “big push” “statewide regarding mental health issues and these kinds of programs.”

“This is something that will pay for itself, I think just in police response, getting people out of the system,” Kulhawik said. “We have a lot of people that we will respond to regularly, substance abuse issues, drug, alcohol issues, homelessness, mental health. I mean, it covers so many areas that people are looking for help and need help, that we’re responding to on a daily basis.”

McMurrer said that she’s been working on bringing this service to Norwalk, “ever since my first meeting with the chiefs of police.” Council members Diana Révolus (D-District B) and Nicol Ayers (D-District A) expressed support.

“This is a big deal,” Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) said, calling it “what we talk about, coming up with innovative solutions to satisfying a lot of issues that the police department faces.”

Kulhawik said the program would be “very proactive” and “direct people out of the criminal justice system.” Then, citizens would be less hesitant to call police because people will get the help they need, “the right person with the right skill set that’s going to deal with it in the right manner.”

It would take Recovery three to six months to begin the service, as time is needed to find the right people, Kulhawik said. “The ideal is to get somebody who really understands the system.”

Recovery is already “doing a soft kind of recruitment,” Daniels said, adding that police will help choose the hire. He’s hoping it would kick off in two months.

Stamford is “ecstatic with the services that Recovery has provided,” Kulhawik said. “They had no negative comments at all, it was all positives, it’s far exceeded their expectations of what this program would do for their city.”

Correction, 2:42 p.m.: The Common Council voted Tuesday to table the proposal, sending it to the Finance Committee for further consideration.

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