Skills-based field training is the signature pedagogy of any Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program. Field internships are a time when students can make their educational experience come to life and develop a conversation between what they’re learning in the classroom and what professionals are doing on the front lines. Both of these environments are crucial to the creation of a competent practitioner.
It’s a unique experience when an M.S.W. student intern gets to grow alongside their placement organization. For Britney Coleman, GSS ‘25, this is exactly the case — she is interning in the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) of the Norwalk, Connecticut Police Department, which just recently celebrated its first anniversary.
And this semester, Coleman started a technological initiative that assisted the police department, helped the broader Norwalk community, and contributed to the BHU’s continued growth.
Building Bridges Between Social Work and Law Enforcement
Coleman’s journey began during her undergraduate degree experience, where she studied criminal justice, emphasizing human relations and psychology. After graduating, she considered what she wanted from a career and decided on graduate school as the next step. When researching graduate programs, she found social work’s versatility exactly what she needed to create her desired path.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the helping profession of some kind, but I didn’t want to be strictly a therapist,” she said. “Social work had a lot of umbrellas underneath it, so I could pick from more things. The path afterward wasn’t set in stone.”
Coleman chose Fordham because of its nationally recognized reputation and the University’s convenient Westchester campus. As a White Plains, NY resident, Coleman did not want to commit to a Manhattan commute for her education but still wanted to attend Fordham. The Westchester campus was the perfect alternative, located just a few minutes drive from where she lives.
“If you’re looking into social work, you know of Fordham,” Coleman said. “It made it even better that they have a campus so close to me, so I didn’t have to commute into the city.”
Coleman told Fordham’s field education department about her interest in law enforcement, and they connected her with Norwalk’s Behavioral Health Unit. Coleman said that while the unit may be new and small—currently employing one clinician on staff—it has the respect and support of police officers who work beside it.
“Everyone I’ve met has been so open and nice,” she said. “They’re very friendly. I’ve done two ride-alongs where I actually go in the field with an officer, and I’m with them for four hours, driving around, going on any calls.”
And it’s not just ride-alongs where Coleman and her team assist officers. Police have tapped into the BHU to help mediate interviews with individuals brought into the station when they believe the individual needs mental health assistance. Officers realize social workers’ strength in these situations and ask the BHU to take the lead.
“Officers have actually stopped their interviews and have come down to us and said, Hey, can you guys come and sit in on this? I think it’s mental health related,” Coleman said. “So, we’re a big resource for the officers.”
Innovative Solutions for the Community
It’s not just the police officers who embrace the BHU and its services, including following up and providing resources through home visits and phone calls. Coleman said the broader Norwalk community has appreciated the BHU’s presence and their perspective on complex cases.
Coleman recently made her presence known in the unit and among the community with the invention of a community resource website. Upon her supervisor’s request, Coleman culled the internet and communal gathering sites in Norwalk, like coffee shops and public spaces, to find organizations that provide resources and services for locals. The services Coleman found ranged from substance abuse counseling to housing shelters. She then culminated her research into a webpage that can be accessed by a QR code that now hangs on the walls of the police department. Officers are already approaching Coleman to find unique ways of placing it elsewhere to help expand access.
“One of the officers offered to make us a sticker with it so it can go inside of the police cruisers themselves,” Coleman said, “so that way, they’re not carrying around paper if they forget to scan it before walking out to their car.”
Coleman said the resource page is a living, breathing entity, and she looks for new additions daily. And what is considered a good resource? Where does Coleman set the bar for what can live on the webpage? When researching her sources, Coleman said, reputation and organizational culture—specifically a company’s mission and goals—were key factors in determining a potential fit.
“I make sure it’s a reputable source,” she said. “There has to be good outcomes coming from it because you can hear many horror stories.”
Coleman said the resource page—available in both English and Spanish translations—would also be useful to other community spaces. She’s already considering libraries and small businesses in the Norwalk area that might post the QR code for their audiences to reach more people in need.
“I have found Britney to be so inspiring in the work that she’s doing,” said Fordham GSS Clinical Professor Dana Marlowe, Ph.D., who teaches Coleman in one of her M.S.W. classes. “She is really making a difference at her field placement and helping so many people!”
“After I brought the QR code up to Dr. Marlowe in class, one of my other classmates asked if I could send it to them so they could recreate something similar for their field placement,” Coleman said. “I mean, it is really helpful, and I think it has a lot of opportunities to grow and be something bigger.”
Challenges, Aspirations, and Advice
Coleman said working in a Behavioral Health Unit within a police department has its challenges, including the potential for harm while on house calls. Although an officer always accompanies her and her team on home visits, there is a sense of uncertainty around what could escalate into a volatile situation.
“Everyone’s a little unpredictable,” Coleman said. “And we are walking into their houses, so I can understand.”
But there are also really good times on home visits and follow-ups, Coleman said, mentioning an instance when a Norwalk woman expressed gratitude to the BHU team for checking in.
“The woman asked, what’s the reason for coming now? We explained that we wanted to ensure her home was safe and that she felt OK and secure where she was living,” Coleman said. “And she said, Oh, my God, that’s so nice! Thank you so much. Without us reaching out, she would have never known that a service would come out and make sure that she was OK in her home. And she was very appreciative over the phone that we would even do something like that.”
This field placement experience has given Coleman growing confidence that social workers are needed in police departments and that collaboration will only continue to grow in the coming years. She says this is not just a resource for the community, but also for the officers themselves.
“There’s such a stereotype around, police officers don’t get mental health checks—the only time they have to see a therapist is if they’re involved in something traumatic,” Coleman said. “I think we’re in such an age where mental health is so big that people shouldn’t be criticized for getting mental health help. There’s a lot of room to grow in this area. Social workers are needed.”
The resource webpage Coleman created is currently undergoing updates. We will provide a link here once it’s live.