Much recent attention has been given to negative police–citizen interactions, particularly those that end in the significant injury or death of a community member. Interestingly, studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of police cadets want to become officers for altruistic reasons; yet, many citizens do not experience police in this light. Police are often the first to recognize family violence and thus are in a unique position to be “first social responders.” However, in most jurisdictions, their intervention options are limited to “arrest or walk away.” The Police Assisted Referral (PAR) program is a collaborative effort aligning a public housing police department, community service agencies, and a school of social work. The initiative creates a conduit for police officers to connect families, youths, and adult victims of domestic violence to needed social service interventions. Officers are trained to recognize social crises that factor into the calls for service they receive. At the scene of an incident, when social factors are identified, the officer presents the individual/family with a referral card, which includes the officer’s name, report number, and department phone number. The referral card stipulates that a referral was made to a private agency, not associated with county social services or the housing authority, in order to foster trust with the client population. The referral is integrated into the police department’s policies and procedures, so referrals are made as part of the case documentation process (real-time at the event on behalf of the victims) and have been integrated into the service metrics regularly tracked/measured.
Methods: This study uses a survey design and includes a sample of 1,827 adults who were directly served by PAR between April 2013 and March 2016. Participants were contacted via mail and asked to complete a 32-item questionnaire and received a $20 gift certificate for their completed survey. Due to address errors (mostly from individuals relocating), 1,368 (75%) of the surveys were deliverable. Of these questionnaires, 337 were completed and returned, yielding a response rate of 25%. Measures included demographics, recent violence exposure scale, a police legitimacy scale and helpfulness of referral.
Results: 93% of residents reported that the officer was respectful when the resident received the referral card; 91% reported that getting the card was helpful; 93% reported all police should be able to give referrals. When asked if their opinion about police changed as a result of getting the referral, 56% reported it was the same, 43% reported it was better and 1% reported it was worse. Violence exposure levels were high: 47% had recently been physically threatened, 20% had been beaten, and 11% were attacked with a weapon. Police legitimacy scores yielded high approval ratings of police.
Conclusions: Data suggest this partnership between police officers and social workers benefited citizens by providing needed services and enhanced citizens’ views of police who partner with social services. It should be noted that this program serves public housing citizens in high-crime, high poverty areas.