Hillsborough’s Police Social Worker Is Making a Positive Impact

Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024
Savannah Gilliland in front of the Town of Hillsborough Police Station
Savannah Gilliland stands in front of the Hillsborough Police Department, excited to engage the community through social work outreach.

Hillsborough Police Department’s new social worker is finding innovative ways to positively impact the community’s most vulnerable residents.  

Savannah Gilliland became the town’s first social worker in October 2023, with the goal of helping to build a stronger connection between the Police Department and the larger community.   

“My main priority is to divert those facing mental health concerns away from the criminal justice system,” Gilliland said. “Some people may not always want to talk to officers in uniform, and that is where I come in. Everyone in the Police Department is committed to helping those in need, and an important part of that is making sure those people are comfortable seeking assistance.” 

Gilliland is a key piece of a larger team across Orange County, serving as one of four diversion social workers in local law enforcement agencies. These four positions are sponsored by the Community Care and Diversion Response Team, a collaborative pre-arrest and post-charge diversionary program under the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department.  

The two-year program — funded by a state grant — seeks to divert individuals with a history of serious mental illness from the criminal justice system though personal interactions and individualized care. A social worker works within each law enforcement agency, allowing for direct collaboration with officers in the Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough police departments and in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.  

“The social workers on this team are highly trained behavioral health specialists,” said Caitlin Fenhagen, director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department. “They work collaboratively across the county to address the issues of those identified and prevent them from continuing to cycle through the criminal justice system.”   

Gilliland began her career as a child protective services social worker in Alamance County. She later moved to Granville County and became a foster care social worker.  

“I knew early on that I loved this profession,” Gilliland said. “However, I never thought there would be an opportunity to act as a police social worker in North Carolina. I was so excited to see the innovative approach in Hillsborough and could not wait to get started.” 

Each workday offers a new challenge for Gilliland as she finds effective ways to provide needed resources and support for Hillsborough’s unhoused and at-risk communities. She and trained crisis intervention officers help de-escalate situations when mental health is a concern by communicating with residents in a tactful, warm manner. 

Gilliland steps in after an event, when officers typically need to move to the next call. She works with the individuals involved to connect them with services, such as transportation to doctors’ appointments and mental health counseling.  

Gilliland spends a lot of time in the community, allowing her to meet her clients where they are and to develop a personal connection with them. She believes this visibility also has strengthened community relations with the Hillsborough Police Department. As more of her clients learn of her role with the officers, they have become more cooperative and open to accepting assistance from law enforcement.  

“Being consistent with residents helps build relationships so that they will trust you to help them get the services they need,” Gilliland said. “I hope that Hillsborough and other police departments develop permanent positions to continue this trust building. I feel this program and my fellow social workers and I are making a positive difference. Although it may take a long time to get clients to a place where they are safe, there is hope at the end of the tunnel.” 

The state grant runs through September 2025.