Want to Reform the Police? Look to Social Work for Lessons

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Photo by D.C. Atty via Flickr

“Most of what police officers do is social work.” It is hard to forget this line, shared with one of us by a major city police chief years ago. But with the call now to defund the police and move some law enforcement functions to social services, it is time to reconsider what the relationship should be between policing and social work.

Police officers are called upon to handle many tasks associated with social work. From responding to domestic disputes, intervening with the homeless and mentally ill, or handling those with alcohol or chemical dependencies, street officers encounter a wide range of pain and dysfunction.

If social work is a profession of helping people in need, then perhaps the police and social workers are similar.

The primary assumptions are that police officers and social workers are both strongly committed to serving the community from very different philosophical approaches. There are multiple examples where social workers and police officers are attempting to achieve a common goal—the safety of the community.

Social workers are trained with knowledge and practice skills to address safety and health concerns of vulnerable families and children impacted by life-threatening issues such as intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, mental illness, substance use, homelessness, elder abuse, and juvenile delinquency.

jon gould

Jon Gould

They have training in prevention and family dynamics. In multiple sites across the country, police officers and social workers jointly work on these social and psychological challenges to achieve a positive outcome.

However, decades of racial and ethnic inequities exacerbate the relationships law enforcement has with communities of color, especially African Americans.

Disparities and disproportionalities across multiple domains lead to worse outcomes for people of color in education, income, health, behavioral health, delinquency, substance abuse, disabilities, criminal justice, safety, and chronic diseases. These disparities not only fuel discontent with the police charged with maintaining order amidst such disproportionalities, but they also form the basis for racial profiling and even violence, which continue to worsen the relationships between police departments and the communities they serve.

Looking at the current situation and its historical narrative, law enforcement officers and social workers need to accept that they have had a role in shaping the understanding of the problem.

The issue is not simply safety or dysfunction but injustice.

As such, the response must involve new philosophical approaches and concepts. It requires both a policy and financial commitment to integrate aspects of law enforcement and social work to better address the overall needs of the community and tackle injustices.

In building this partnership, law enforcement must be open to lessons from social work, which emphasizes the needs of the community. Crucially, as our colleagues at Arizona State University published last week, police and criminal justice agencies need to diversify their recruitment to achieve equal employment opportunity, inclusion and empathy.

Police legitimacy is higher when officers fully represent the membership of the communities they serve. In many areas, this means concerted outreach to recruit more African-American officers; in areas such as ours, it also means attracting Latinx and Native American officers from communities that historically have been on the harsh end of order-control strategies.

But it also requires recruitment strategies that deliberately select candidates for maturity and self-control, and screen out those with propensities for violence and conscious biases.

Police training—both for recruits and veteran officers—requires a history lesson. Those policed will understandably resist law enforcement unless there is an acknowledgement of past wrongs and a genuine attempt to improve.

Law enforcement academies must teach practitioners about the history of racial oppression in policing and criminal justice and why many people mistrust the system. Social work can assist in opening officers’ eyes to the nature of biases, both explicit and implicit, and offer strategies to better recognize and control harmful biases.

Finally, social workers can assist officers in learning de-escalation skills that reduce the need for coercive action. Just because strong or even armed force is permissible does not mean it is advisable. Lives can be saved, tensions reduced, and legitimacy improved if officers are trained to use the least amount of force necessary to achieve lawful objectives.

James Williams

James Herbert Williams

Some political leaders are calling for greater “strength” by the police. Under this argument, social work is considered “weak” or even “soft on crime.” However, that interpretation has it backwards.

Police are stronger when their communities trust and engage with them, when processes and practices are fair and disillusionment and opposition remain low. If there were ever a time to turn to a profession that helps others in need, it is now.

Jon Gould is director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and James Herbert Williams is director of the School of Social Work, both at Arizona State University.

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