By WCCO-TV Staff

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In what is being called the “future of public safety,” Hennepin County officials announced that its embedded social worker program is expanding to a total of 21 police departments countywide.

On Tuesday, Hennepin County Commissioner Chris LaTondresse announced that the program is growing to now include seven more suburban police departments by 2022. These police departments include Minnetrista, Corcoran, Orono, Deephaven, Wayzata, Medina and South Lake Minnetonka.

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“The expansion of Hennepin County’s embedded social worker program is all about the intersection of public safety and mental health,” LaTondresse said. “It’s about equipping local law enforcement with another tool to improve outcomes for residents in crisis and increase trust with the communities they serve. This program is the future of public safety.”

The program, established in 2019, is a partnership between Hennepin County, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and local law enforcement. Officials say it’s part of a larger effort to improve responses to emergency calls related to mental health or substance abuse, “diverting residents from the criminal justice system or hospitalization to appropriate services.”

Hennepin County described the process:

When a responding law enforcement officer has concerns about a resident, they send a referral to the police department’s social worker. The social worker reviews information and develops an intervention with the resident, then creates a plan to coordinate with existing supports, resources, and referrals for ongoing needs. Social workers respond to mental health and substance use reports and offer support to help reduce use of 911 and coordinate service needs for residents.

The first police departments to sign on in 2019 were Brooklyn Park, Plymouth, Minnetonka, St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Bloomington. It’s since expanded to include Brooklyn Center, Crystal, New Hope, Robbinsdale, Edina, Richfield and the University of Minnesota.

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Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson says people have been calling for changes in law enforcement, and the embedded social worker program is just that.

“I am committed to better results for those experiencing mental health or substance abuse emergencies. My office is committed to helping people be better and find the path to a healthy and happy life,” Hutchinson said.

In 2020, these social workers engaged over 1,700 people across 12 cities. The expansion means a total of 29 cities in Hennepin County will be covered by 2022.

“This partnership offers new opportunities to address the underlying reasons people with mental health concerns may be calling for police to respond,” Jessica Angeles, a Hennepin County social worker who is embedded with Minnetonka police, said. “Connecting people to local supports can improve their mental health symptoms, expanding resources for them to lean on when a crisis does arise. This reduces the impact of psychiatric crisis on the law enforcement system, and improves people’s quality of life.”

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Officials say cities contribute 60% of the funding for the embedded social worker and Hennepin County funds the remaining 40%. The social worker is employed by Hennepin County but embedded in local law enforcement.