Social workers have long been thought of as societal bandaids, but systemic issues can’t be solved with complicit actors.
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought an enormous amount of dialogue regarding social workers and their role (or potential role) within law enforcement. A few days ago, Trump signed an executive order that calls for an increase in social workers in police departments, with the purpose of social workers answering and attending calls along with police officers. The executive order also calls for increased funding for police departments to hire social workers and provide more training to police officers.
These proposed measures are the complete opposite of defunding the police, which has been one of the calls to action from protestors, activists, community leaders, and many social workers as well. Municipal governments often spend more on police services rather than prevention and intervention services with evidence-based data proven to decrease violence, increase self-sufficiency and promote a better quality of life for individuals and communities. As an example, the City of Phoenix had a budget allowance for the Police Department for 2019-2020 of $721,210,000, while other departments such as Human Services had a budget allowance of $94,266,000 (1). Human services is one of four City departments that provides support for victim services, job readiness programs, senior centers, assistance for those experiencing homelessness, community centers and education programs for school readiness (phoenix.gov/budgetsite, 2020). Defunding the police would involve taking money given to police departments and reallocating those funds for mental health, education, and other essential services for the community that would provide proven results to decrease violence, increase income equality, increase self-sufficiency and community connectedness. This requires a shift of consciousness to commit to work toward eradicating racism along with ending violence and discrimination for BIPOC communities.
Social workers in police departments can become highly problematic and do not provide an effective approach to decrease police brutality. Furthermore, the Code of Ethics of social workers calls for social workers to challenge social injustice.
“Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers' social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people” (2)
A temporary solution to a long term problem
The proposed increase of social workers in police departments is a temporary solution that takes us further from abolition. We are advocates for harm reduction, and this initiative might reduce harm for some people in some places, but some social workers do harm, real harm and their bias continue perpetuating the cycle of oppression. Social workers are already part of some police departments where they provide training, crisis intervention, and resources, and unfortunately this has not seemed to reduce the disproportionate number of killings of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
White supremacy within social work profession
There’s an analysis and work that is missing in our education, in our company’s policies, and our actions that makes us leaps away from contributing meaningfully in social and racial justice.
The institution of social work itself is not born of the same origins of policing, it is born from accessible housing and the labor movement. However, there are things that we cannot ignore that have been married to social work. There’s the medical industrial complex and the educational industrial complex. We’ve made it a high barrier to become social workers and even dangerous to access us. Further, there’s our history and current actions of complying and being complicit with police themselves and institutions that are based in punishment and have hugely disproportionate outcomes (CPS, ICE, etc). As social workers, we must work to remove barriers and aim to be culturally grounded when serving the community while also informing systemic change. It is our responsibility to be agents of change and listen to the BIPOC communities, and to better understand what approaches would be fit as we know not every individual and not every community has the same needs.
Follow the leadership of the Black community
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the origin of these initiatives of collaboration between police and social workers. So far, we have not seen any substantial work where the leadership of Black women, Black queer folx, and Black mother’s and families or even Black social workers are calling for us to be involved in police departments. There are some places calling for an increase in mental health professionals and social workers as an alternative to policing. There are some folx calling for an increase or for a new presence of restorative justice. There are a lot more places where people are calling for communities to make their own decisions and be individually empowered versus still be dependent on us and us gate-keeping resources through process, policy, and each individual agency’s scale of ‘worthiness’.
Restorative Justice supports reconciliation and opportunities for healing and growth. Now is the time to work from a diverse and inclusive lens and have these important conversations within our profession.
Let go of the idea of ‘better’ police. Critically engage in being an anti-racist social worker. Have courageous conversations with your agency, colleagues, and educational institutions.
Opinion piece by:
Imelda Ojeda, MSW, MPA
Jennifer Tunning, LMSW, CPG
Joanna Marroquin, MSW
Photo credit https://blacklivesmatter.com/