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Washtenaw United: 'Handle With Care' Program Identifies And Helps Those With Childhood Trauma

Derrick Jackson
Washtenaw County

Childhood trauma, if not addressed properly, can have terrible, long-term effects. In many situations, law enforcement is involved, and that can intensify trauma. Derrick Jackson from the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss the "Handle with Care" program that identifies those at risk of trauma and then provides needed resources to overcome its affects. 

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area.  And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services.  It is a community voice.  It is 'Washtenaw United.'




Derrick is the social worker who became a police officer that now helps to run a police agency. As the Director of Community Engagement, Mr. Jackson has spent the last 13 years designing and implementing systems that integrate social work and criminal justice theory in order to revolutionize traditional policing strategies. Derrick is a proud graduate of Eastern Michigan University where he studied social work as an undergraduate student and the University of Michigan School of Social Work for his graduate studies. As a social worker and Certified Law Enforcement Officer he has a unique perspective and role in building bridges between law enforcement and the communities they serve. He has spent his time within law enforcement learning, understanding, deconstructing, redesigning, and implementing systems within the Washtenaw County community that have helped reimagine the role of police within community and the role of social workers within law enforcement. Where some may see social work and law enforcement on opposite ends of the spectrum, Director Jackson redefines the spectrum and uses social work and law enforcement to enhance the impact of both. 


Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department

Handle with Care


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're going to explore trauma today, its impact on our community and how different methodologies and policing can become part of the solution. I'm David Fair, and this is Washtenaw United, our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity. We know with certainty early childhood trauma, if unaddressed, can adversely impact children the rest of their lives. Oftentimes, the trauma involves situations in which law enforcement must be involved. Sometimes, those interactions can be traumatic in and of themselves. Our guest today has spent the last 13 years designing and implementing systems that integrate social work and criminal justice theory to advance traditional policing strategies. Derrick Jackson is director of community engagement for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office and here today to talk about its Handle with Care program. Thank you so much for the time, Officer Jackson.

Derrick Jackson: Oh, David, thank you so much for having me.

David Fair: You went to college and did your graduate studies in social work. When did it become apparent to you there was a lack of intersection of therapeutic interaction and services between law enforcement and community?

Derrick Jackson: Honestly, it wasn't until I started working at the sheriff's office, and I really started to gain a true understanding of what officers on the road do each and every day. We have this idea that officers are just about arresting people, you know, chasing the bad guy. But a large percentage of our time is really spent getting called to someone's house who are dealing with the worst day with their family, or some mental health issue, or the person on the street who can't find housing. So, officers really get called to help people deal with a lot of the things that social workers go to social worker school to help with--all of those intersecting pieces of behavioral health.

David Fair: So when you started at the sheriff's office, how much was there in the way of trauma outreach and care?

Derrick Jackson: Well, I think we were just learning, right? I was learning what it really meant to do social work in partnership with law enforcement and the agency was learning. So, over the last 13 years, we've really been able to grow, I think, be innovative and creative and understand that we don't necessarily have to be the social workers, the police officers on the street, but we oftentimes are the front door to those services. When I worked at Oldham House years ago, it wasn't uncommon for a police officer to be that connection to bring that runaway or homeless kid to our doors. Now, some, you know, 15, 20 years later, the light bulb for me has gone off that. Yep, that's exactly what officers can be. They can be the front door to social services.

David Fair: Everyone understands there is trauma associated with violent crime, and it certainly expands beyond the direct victims. You've mentioned a couple of things, but what other types of trauma are there that we may not think as much about?

Derrick Jackson: I mean, if you're a young person, and you see your parents get arrested, even if it's not for something violent, just the simple fact of watching your father or mother be put in handcuffs and taken away can be traumatizing. It could be a car accident. It could be something that you hear about. It didn't happen to someone that you know, but it just happened in your community. Or maybe it's one of those shots fired calls where someone is shooting in the neighborhood where nothing gets hit. But, as a young kid, if you're in your bed, you think it's safe in your house and you hear gunfire, like, just imagine how traumatic that can be when it starts to break down your perception of safety in your own bedroom. All those things and many more can be pretty traumatic to the young brain and the people in general.

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU with Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office Director of Community Engagement and United Way of Washtenaw County board member Derrick Jackson. And as we approach this subject today, Officer Jackson, and I say this anecdotally because I do not have a statistical analysis that would bear it out, but it seems to me there have been an increase in the number of incidents of shots fired, verified shootings, and violent crime overall in Washtenaw County over the past several months, particularly in Ypsilanti Township. Is that what you were seeing on the law enforcement side?

Derrick Jackson: I think we are. I'll put it into context. You know, we're coming off of COVID where lots of people were off the streets and people weren't interacting. And so, everyone, all things slowed down. Now, as people come back out, people are interacting. Even some of those things that we don't want to have happen now because people are out of their houses and congregating start to happen again. So, it may feel even larger than it is. And we always try to strike that balance of being truthful and saying like, yes, here's the violence that we have, but not scaring people and being so over the top that people are afraid to go out and live in their community.

David Fair: But, again, these are creating incidents and occasions for trauma. As part of the department's strategy to deal with it, it is the Handle with Care program of which we've referenced. So what specifically is the mission then?

Derrick Jackson: So, Handle with Care is all about putting officers in contact with schools to help students. So when a young person witnesses something that's traumatic, an officer sees that. And again, it could be a car accident. It could be an arrest of a parent that that officer simply sends a notice to the school of that child. Doesn't say what happened, not the school's business to know all the details of the family, but it just says "Handle with Care" and the student's name. And that allows the teacher and the principal to know something may have happened with that young person traumatically. And we just need to look for behavior and pay attention. And if they then start to see behaviors, they may have a better understanding of why that child is acting in a way and then connect them to resources to help them, regardless of what the traumatic situation may have been.

David Fair: And then what becomes the function of the school district, its counselors, in ensuring that the student and child is handled with care?

Derrick Jackson: I'll give you a real life example. We had a young person who a family member have just had just been killed. He goes to school. He's acting out. They don't quite know why. He gets sent to the principal's office. The principal is literally on the verge of suspending this young person, and he then gets the handle with care notice. And in the notice, again, all says that the kid's name and "handle with care." He then starts to talk to the young person a little bit different, not focusing on the behavior, but focusing on maybe why he was illicit in that behavior. The kid broke down, started crying, and then told the principal what happened the night before. Of course, the kid wasn't suspended. Then, the social worker can be brought in, and that young person could be handled with care appropriately to deal with what the real issue was. He was acting out in school because of the trauma that he had witnessed the night before.

David Fair: That sounds like very solid crisis management, but is there a strategy beyond immediate response with longer term follow-up and support?

Derrick Jackson: There is. And there's connections to community mental health and some of other service providers in the community. Again, just because a kid get the handle with care notice doesn't necessarily mean they're going to elicit any other behavior. But, if they do, that school has a contact to some of our other service providers in the community to get them connected or more follow-up and long term care.

David Fair: Once again, this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU, and our conversation with Officer Derrick Jackson from the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office continues. And I'm sure I don't need to tell you that around the country and right here at home, there is a good deal of mistrust of the law enforcement community. There are complaints against some of your deputies, as well as in other agencies around the county. So, some of the trauma that occurs in our community is a direct result of negative interactions with the law enforcement, or, as you have pointed out, in some occasions, just watching law enforcement do the right thing and handcuffing parents. Can the Handle with Care program still work if the trauma is in, least in part, because of law enforcement?

Derrick Jackson: Yeah, I think so. You know, regardless of what the trauma is, Handle with Care is just about getting that young person connected to the resources to help them deal with that trauma. So, the young person doesn't necessarily know, hey, this is a program that the officer starts. It actually isn't even something other than a checkbox for an officer to click on that then starts this whole process. So, it may seem a little simplistic on the front end, but, on the back end, when the school and the social workers and the community mental health are working with the young person in the family, it could be really complex. So, yes. So, to answer your question directly, I think, regardless of what the trauma is, Handle with Care has a way of still connecting with that young person and providing services. I'll just add one other piece to it that. We're creating multiple systems for officers or the appropriate community responder to respond, so someone calls 911 in the future here in Washtenaw County, whether it's a peer who shows up, a social worker, a medical person or a police officer, we're creating all those systems to allow that to happen. But there still will be those times when an officer is in someone's home or interacts with a particular incident, a traffic crash, for example, where they see a young person who sees something traumatic, and then then they make that connection. So, I think having the ability to have all of those appropriate community responders is ultimately what we're trying to get through here in Washtenaw County.

David Fair: Is the department applying some of the similar and same social work strategies internally, so there is a greater bridge of understanding and trust between law enforcement and those that is charged with serving?

Derrick Jackson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, some of the real life examples are, prior to COVID, we were doing right along with community mental health workers. And so, learning together, we see what they do. They see what we do. We obviously have a 24/7 crisis team with community mental health, so our officers can call social workers to the scene, and they're working together and seeing it. We're doing real training for officers to understand mental health issues and what they look like. So, when they arrive on the scene, they're not just thinking this is a criminal behavior. Maybe they'll recognize, like a social worker would, that this is really a mental health behavior or an addiction behavior and then be able to appropriately respond. So, for all those reasons, absolutely. I think it's a two-way street. Not that officers need to be social workers or social workers need to be officers, but hand in hand, there's some powerful things that can happen. And some powerful reforms within policing and community that can happen for the better.

David Fair: And that is what will build bridges. Thank you so much for the time today.

Derrick Jackson: You are very welcome. Thank you.

David Fair: That is Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office Director of Community Engagement Derrick Jackson, our guest on Washtenaw United. Officer Jackson is also a board member of the United Way of Washtenaw County, which serves as our content partner for Washtenaw United. For more information on the Handle with Care program, visit our website at WEMU Dot Org. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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