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Shoreline Community College first in US to offer program merging mental health professionals, police officers

Protesters in front of police on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Over the past several months, with all eyes on America’s police departments, it’s become clear that police officers end up doing a lot of work they weren’t necessarily trained to do. People often call police when, in fact, the call would be better suited for a social worker who is trained in mental illness and can get them the help they need.

So a brand new certificate, offered by Shoreline Community College, couldn’t come at a better time.

The 15 credit certificate was developed, and is taught, by Anura Shah LICSW, MHA, a forensic social worker who also teaches crisis intervention training to law enforcement officers. The certificate bridges the gap between criminal justice and sociology, law and psychology, and would greatly benefit a social worker who wants to work alongside police to help mentally ill and marginalized populations.

“There is something very wrong with our system when you can have someone who is cycling in and out of the justice system, in and out of mental health court, in and out of hospitals over and over and over and nothing seems to work,” Shah said. “This has been a long standing problem in our society and I think everyone can agree that there needs to be some sweeping change when it comes to individuals who are left out on the fringe of society with not a lot of support. I teach that this is all related: The health care system is related to the justice system, which is related to our education system. You cannot resolve one issue without looking at the entire gambit of how individuals interact with multiple systems across our nation.”

The course explores de-escalation and conflict resolution, but also social justice and race.

“Why am I able to say Jon Benét Ramsey’s name, as if she’s my best friend next door, but a lot of us can’t even name one of the 10,000 missing or murdered indigenous women in the state? That’s what I teach about,” Shah said. “Why is that happening? What’s the deeper meaning behind that?”

Shah teaches history to give better context to issues happening today.

“I have my students read about the Tuskegee Experiments, a public health department that experimented on Black males when it came to syphilis,” Shah said. “A lot of times they were not told they had the disease, they were not given the right medications; syphilis causes blindness. There were hundreds and hundreds of African American males that were experimented on without their consent and died because they were not treated. People often wonder why aren’t there more Black women signing up for the COVID vaccine trials? Well, here’s one of the reasons why. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s taught in school.”

Several years ago, Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Bothell, Kirkland and Kenmore police departments banded together to create North Sound RADAR. It’s a program that connects police officers with mental health professionals called Navigators, who respond to a scene and help a person with behavioral health issues. But there are only four part-time Navigators to serve all five of those cities. Shoreline Police Chief Shawn Ledford said this certificate will be a big help.

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“Very beneficial to have these mental health professionals come out with a better understanding of law enforcement policies and procedures,” Chief Ledford said. “It’s hard to attract mental health professionals because they have to come out and work weekends and holidays, or maybe they have a full-time established job. Because of Shoreline Community College’s program, we’re going to see a much more robust partnership between mental health professionals and law enforcement.”

This certificate is the first of its kind in the country and will hopefully lead to new jobs being created.

“We have to remember that this is a brand new career,” Shah said. “The good news about Washington state is that we do have a number of positions that are just opening up. Things like peer support professionals, which are specifically recruiting individuals who have lived experience with mental health issues who can be a peer to an individual who is really struggling right now. All the way to the seasoned social worker or counselor, mental health professional. I believe that my programs will rapidly open the doors for other agencies who maybe never even thought that this could have been a career.”

Shah developed two programs: the Criminal Justice Advocacy Certificate (CJAC) is for students, and the Interprofessional Practice of Law Enforcement and Social Work is a continuing education course for those already working in the field.

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