Alumna Returns to Hometown to Launch Co-Responder Program With Police Department
Kenzie Janson-Wolle (MSW ’15) thrives under pressure. She loves chaos and taking on a new challenge every day. That’s why her office is in the passenger seat of a police patrol car where she responds to emergency calls with a St. Cloud police officer as the Minnesota city’s only social worker co-responder.
“I love the go, go, go,” Janson-Wolle says. “It fits with my personality and work style. I found that I work really well in crisis situations, and that sort of influenced the trajectory of how I ended up working on a crisis response team. It’s been the most amazing career.”
Her desire to make a difference through social work began in her undergrad years and flourished during her time at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.
“Once I started getting into social work classes, I absolutely loved it and was like, ‘Wow, this is the job for me,’” Janson-Wolle recalls. “DU’s program was amazing. The teachers and the viewpoints they brought to the studies and the way they conducted the classes were just so wonderful.”
She started doing high-intensity social work after graduation, and when the Denver Police Department and the Mental Health Center of Denver started a co-responder program, pairing officers with social workers, Janson-Wolle knew she wanted to be a part of it. She spent the next months working to get all her credentials and then landed a coveted spot as a co-responder. Every shift, she was partnered with a police officer, and dispatch would send her team to any mental health calls that came in. Along with the officer, Janson-Wolle evaluated the situation, discussed resources and made the connection for continuing support.
“Having a co-responder really enhances the police officer’s ability to serve the community,” she says, sharing how officers would often consult with her on best practices for handling situations complicated by mental health issues. “We act as supportive tool for them. It makes us better, it makes the officers better, and ultimately, it makes the community response better and their engagement with the community better.”
When life took her back to her Minnesota hometown so she could be closer to family, Janson-Wolle started looking for co-responder jobs in the area. As fate would have it, the Central Minnesota Health Center had been working to launch the first co-responder program in St. Cloud and had even looked to Denver’s program as its model. She joined the organization in early 2020, and together they launched the first co-responder team for the St. Cloud police right at the start of the pandemic.
“It was challenging at the beginning,” she remembers. “A lot of places were running on limited resources and time, so we had to get creative and work outside of the box to connect people with services.”
Just a few months into the job and an hour away from St. Cloud, the police killing of George Floyd sparked a national conversation about policing—and about how mental health responders can play a crucial role in answering some of the calls for help.
“Having this national conversation where we highlight mental health really amplifies the need,” Janson-Wolle says. “I’m so passionate about the co-responder model, and it’s shown a spotlight that social workers do exist and these programs do exist. They might be in your community and you might not even know about it.”
In the short time since St. Cloud implemented its co-responder model, Janson-Wolle has already detected a change in public perceptions.
“The most rewarding part of this work is seeing the community shift in their view of the police and of social workers,” Janson-Wolle says. She has noticed that reactions are moderated when someone sees a police officer with a social worker not in uniform. “They see a kinder and gentler side. We are here for you.”
For Janson-Wolle, it’s especially gratifying to see this program come to life in a community she loves.
“It has been a really cool experience to be the first boots on the ground for this program, especially in my hometown,” she says. “It’s very interesting to see my town from a different point of view and get to know my community a little bit better and understand the challenges people are facing. We’ve had a lot of opportunity to have some great interventions with people and be out there serving our community as best we can.”