(Written by Joe Nelson)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The hiring of a social worker for the Morgantown Police Department has resulted in the discovery of new aspects to help law enforcement.

Kelly Rice, who has served as the Morgantown PD social worker for the past year, has begun to reflect on her experiences with the department and some of the things that she has learned on the job. Helping out officers on a regular basis on calls that ranged from domestic incidents to reports of open drug use, Rice has found both the benefits of having more officers to respond to emergencies while also having people on staff who have the ability to de-escalate situations. On WAJR’s Talk of the Town, Rice stated that in her year with Morgantown PD, the need to have more services and boots on the ground to help compliment the job an officer does on a daily basis is more apparent than ever.

“It’s not a replacement for an officer, I think it’s more of an enhancement,” said Rice on her time with the department. “And I think, initially, there was this talk of like the social worker can just do what law enforcement does, and that’s not the case at all,” she said.

In the year she has been with the Morgantown Police Department, Rice has made it a point to increase relationships between local organizations and the department. Among the partnering agencies, she mentioned local rehabilitation organizations, West Virginia University, Mon Health, and the service providers at Morgantown’s social service hub, Hazel’s House of Hope. Added to her previous relationships that she’s built during her time working at FCI Hazelton, Rice has been able to give a unique background on a call, depending on the individual, where services can be provided and no officer intervention is needed.

“I’ve established relationships with West Virginia Peers (recovery services), with Valley (Healthcare), Chestnut Ridge (Medical Care), and I can be kind of like that bridge,” said Rice. “So if we get a call, and I know this particular individual, there might be things that I know about them that the officers don’t, just kind of be that extra resource for them,” she said.

Rice also mentioned that she found in her relatively short time on the force the importance of the complimentary nature between herself and the officers she goes on call with. Not only to help de-escalate situations where Morgantown Police Officers are needed, but to also be prepared in the event a situation that is normally considered non-violent turns into something serious, and an officer is needed on scene. As part of a department that is currently over 20 short of their budgeted quota, Rice feels that while a social service worker is helpful to Morgantown PD, more officers need to be on the streets as well.

“Right now, law enforcement is still going through a rough patch, so being there for them, and other first responders, I think, is also important,” said Rice, emphasizing the need for more officers.

As Rice prepares for her second year on the job, she plans to continue to advocate for the hiring of more officers for the Morgantown Police Department. This is based on one of the several interactions that she’s experienced where a situation has escalated beyond her control and an officer is needed, despite herself being armed with pepper spray and body armor during calls, while also receiving self-defense training. With that in mind, Rice hopes that the Morgantown Police Department officer shortage can come to a close sooner than later, with more social worker hires considered in the future.

“At this point, I’d like to see more officers, and then that’s something that, you know, maybe another social worker, because you need to have an officer and a social worker (working together),” said Rice.

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