It is a unique approach to policing, but one that Hampton Township Police Department is embracing—and others are now following.
Last fall, Hampton Police partnered with the Social Work Department of Slippery Rock University to strengthen their services by hosting two graduate school interns. The pilot project was so successful that one of those interns was hired as a full-time social worker this past May.
“It worked so well, we wanted to make it permanent,” said Hampton Township Police Chief Tom Vulakovich.
The program developed out of a longstanding relationship that Chief Vulakovich had with Slippery Rock, serving as a guest speaker to Yvonne Easton-Stull’s classes for several years. “I was consistently impressed with the progressive nature of the department and the skills of the chief and his detective, who he also brought to my classes,” said Eaton-Stull. “I approached him to inquire what he thought about having a social work intern and he was on board, feeling that it was a great partnership.”
“I loved the idea and wanted to get my whole department involved. When I presented it to them, they all thought it was an excellent idea,” Chief Vulakovich added.
Having social workers accompany and supplement the police department strengthens services for the community. “We are called upon for things that are simply outside of our ability and expertise. We can put a quick band-aid on things, but we don’t always have the expertise to get to the root of the problem,” he said.
The two interns, Angela Kenbok and Kaylee Kihn, started with the force in August of 2020, immediately developing proper protocols, documentation and procedures for the social workers to interface and work with the department. “We created everything from scratch,” Kenbok said.
The two were called upon to accompany officers to scenes where their services would help, such as domestic disturbances, drug or alcohol issues and mental health crises.
“We would determine when it would make sense for them to be involved—for example, in domestic abuse situations where the victim might need additional help or resources,” Chief Vulakovich said.
The interns were equipped with bulletproof vests and would stay in police vehicles until the officers evaluated the situation and deemed it was safe for them to arrive on scene. At all times, an officer would stay by their side.
“Of course, the officers would give them privacy, when necessary, but we made sure that the interns were always safe,” he said.
The interns would assess the situation and provide services at the scene, as well as offer ongoing services.
“Plus, people can come for additional free counseling at the station,” said Kenbok. “We develop an ongoing relationship.”
The program was so successful that a full-time social work position was created.
“There are so many benefits to our community. We have Angela on staff to help with situations and trauma that we don’t have the expertise to handle,” Chief Vulakovich said.
The department wants other communities to benefit from this type of program. In April, they hosted a crisis intervention program where 60 officers from various departments including the City of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh and surrounding communities participated. Kenbok discussed mental health issues, substance abuse, and domestic crisis intervention techniques.
This past August, the Millvale Police Department and the Greenville Police Department added Slippery Rock University interns to work alongside them. Kenbok is serving as a mentor to those interns.
“For a long time, I’ve seen that this is the way that policing needed to go. When we saw that Hampton had implemented it and we could have interns, we jumped at the chance,” said Millvale Police Chief Tim Komoroski.
The two Millvale interns will work with the officers, walking and riding on their beats, participating in community programming, including those hosted in the local library and with the Boys & Girls Clubs, and providing in-house counseling.
“This is the way that policing is going—it is only common sense for communities to get involved. We would rather get in at the beginning,” Chief Komoroski said.
According to Eaton-Stull, the students also greatly benefit from the program. “They get extensive training and experience in a variety of crisis situations while applying their advanced skills to assist the residents in resolving issues more long-term,” she said.
“Forensic social work is a specialized area of social work practice that involves working with individuals involved in the criminal justice system. Developing strong partnerships helps us to offer specialized placements in this area,” she added.
Both the police department and the university hope to serve as resources for other departments interested in the program.
“Additionally, Slippery Rock and the Hampton Police Department have presented at a national conference, and the model we use is being adopted in many places, even beyond Pennsylvania,” Eaton-Stull said.
According to Chief Vulakovich, Hampton is one of only two departments in the state that currently has a social worker on staff and is the only one in western Pennsylvania; the other is in Lancaster.
“There will be more and more departments involved with these sorts of programs,” he said.