A former chief clinician for Baltimore City Police Department’s Crisis Response Team, social worker Morgan Gregg spent much of her time with the department teaching police officers about mental illness to help them better understand people’s responses and behavior.
“I really like crisis social work,” said Gregg. “I also enjoy working with the police department because it gives me access to people I wouldn’t otherwise get to see and does minimize the chance of something going in a very negative direction during a police contact with someone who’s mentally ill.”
Gregg sat down with SocialWorkLicenseMap.com to talk about what it’s like to be a social worker embedded with police.
Why did you become a social worker?
Initially my undergraduate degree was in psychology, but I realized that the Ph.D. path wasn’t really for me. I wasn’t interested in doing research – and that’s such a huge component of it – or teaching. When I looked at social work, I was really drawn to the fact that you can go toward a micro direction in individual therapy or a macro direction in terms of policy and guiding organizations. Social work really appealed to me because of its flexibility and the fact that if I did eventually want to make changes in my career, I’d be able to do that. And there was the focus on mental health and substance abuse, which is what I had originally studied.
How did you start working with law enforcement?
That just kind of fell in my lap. It was such a great opportunity because it combined the micro part of interacting with individuals in crisis with the macro part. Baltimore City is under a consent decree to change the way that the police department interacts with individuals with mental illness and disabilities. Being part of a pilot program addressing that area, I was able to influence and navigate that program, which I thought was really, really great.
What social work courses or lessons impacted your day-to-day work with police?
It might sound kind of silly to say it, but the entire foundation of social work that is so systems-based has helped. All of my courses have prepared me to interact with an individual and see how they got to the point they are at, especially in a crisis situation that rises to the level of an emergency when police do need to be called. I’m able to take a step back and not just see this as a problem with the person or as something wrong with them, but systemically, consider how they arrived at this situation.
Of course, social work’s focus on nonjudgment and strengths-based practice allows me to interact with people in a way where I don’t see them as criminals or people who have done something bad. Instead, I think about how we help this person and how do we get them to a level where they’re able to use their strengths and function at their best.
What is a typical day like for a social worker with a crisis intervention team?
My shift was 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and that was based on when most of the behavioral health crisis calls were being received. I would be in the police car eight hours a day, five days a week. I had two officer partners, both specifically trained in mental health. They had 40 hours of specialized mental health training and completed mental health first aid. We would turn on the radio and listen for calls. If we recognized that there was a mental health aspect to a call or the call was for an address that we knew from previous incidents, we would respond.
What are challenges for social workers in this area?
I was really lucky. The partners that I got were really great, very sensitive and understanding. In dealing with law enforcement as a whole, sometimes understanding people in terms of mental health can be very difficult. I would be coming from a very different perspective than police, who would want to get people off the street.
Also, navigating the hospital system in Maryland is a bit tricky. Working with the police department, a lot of cases would be petitions for emergency evaluation. Police have to transport emergency petitions to hospitals and trying to get people connected with the best care when things are siloed can be difficult.
What is the best part of the job?
I have access to people whom I might never have been in a position to help. I was able to talk to a man, twice: I told him that he had to stop going on top of bridges when he got upset. I was able to talk him off a bridge. I wouldn’t have been able to speak to him had I not been with the police department or working in kind of an emergency capacity.
When I see other people I’ve helped in a crisis after they’ve stabilized and are doing better, they do remember me. That’s extremely rewarding.
What do you do to maintain your mental health working in this field?
I do a lot of screaming into pillows. I find that very helpful. I should do probably more positive coping skills like yoga or bubble baths or something, but a lot of it is screaming into pillows and then also talking with other social workers about any shared frustrations. I do try to spend time with my brain shut off from work stuff and purposely compartmentalize.
What has surprised you in your experience as a social worker?
One thing that’s kind of surprised me the most is just how much social workers are able to do and the different areas that they’re able to work in. I would go from working with individuals in crisis to going to a meeting with the Department of Justice in the same day. For me, that has been really great, being able to have my hands in different levels in one job.
What advice would you give aspiring social workers?
Don’t go into it with an idea that you are the savior of everything because you’re going to learn very quickly not only is that physically impossible to do, but you don’t know what everybody needs. Be open to constantly learning from those around you and stay humble.
This interview was published in May 2020 and was edited for length and clarity.