CHICAGO – Rayshard Brooks was killed last June when Atlanta police responded to a report by a man sleeping in a car blocking a passage and shot him while trying to run away. Later that summer, a similar situation in Eugene, Oregon ended quite differently: a man who slept in a car was sent home in a taxi.
The key? A mobile crisis intervention team, designed as an alternative to the police in nonviolent crises, responded to the parking lot, reassured the man, contacted his family and called the taxi.
“I keep thinking about how it could have ended differently if the police had reacted instead,” said Michelle Perin, master’s student in social work, an EMT and crisis worker on Team CAHOOTS, short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets .
Social workers have long worked with law enforcement agencies, often treating clients in prisons and jails, inpatient mental health facilities, and immigration detention centers. A 2020 report on the National Association of Social Workers’ redesign of policing suggests that working together could strengthen public safety, reduce racist incidents, and improve the relationship between law enforcement and color communities.
According to Perin, CAHOOTS operates independently but is fully funded by the police, with members dispatched through the Police Fire Brigade and Ambulance Communication Center in Eugene. Police and fire departments can request CAHOOTS, and in some cases CAHOOTS employees can call the police if an individual is a danger to themselves or others.
After high-profile police brutality cases, cities like Denver, New York City, Chicago and Seattle are investigating similar programs with the philosophy that sending social workers and mental health professionals alongside or in place of law enforcement could prevent police brutality.
As cities seek these alternatives in redesigning policing, many social workers are warning against stepping up cooperation with law enforcement that could further harm color communities – ignoring the deep history of systemic racism in social work itself.
Leigh-Anne Francis, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the College of New Jersey, said offering social workers as a quick fix to systemic racism was flawed given the subject’s own heritage, which is linked to its origins in the 1900s.
“The prevailing narrative was that black people were genetically defective and could not be helped by social work because they were morally corrupt and poisoned,” Francis said. “They were irrevocable.”
While she said that many social workers are quick to view as naturally good, the spirits of systemic racist politics – like the 1958 Indian adoption project to break up indigenous families and the embrace of the eugenics movement to find out what social workers viewed as undesirable traits, including being black – linger on the predominantly white field today.
Social workers help criminalize and mass incarcerate people of color, said Julia Lyon, a Pennsylvania social worker and a member of Social Service Workers United. She sees racism almost every day in client reviews by social workers who say they are more likely to blame people of color and advocate their punishment.
“If you’re a black boy in Philadelphia who plays, there will be very different explanations for why you play than a white boy in the affluent suburbs,” she said.
At worst, social worker Deana Ayers from Minneapolis said a system where social workers work with the police or replace them in certain situations would monitor the police by a different name.
“If we are trying to get social workers to solve all of these societal problems and to be a kind of band-aid, we have to do the social work to get rid of this deep-seated, built-in racism. Ayers said. “Otherwise social workers will just be policemen without weapons.”
However, advocates of social worker-police collaboration point out how deeply law enforcement is anchored in American society as evidence of the need to act within it.
“I just think that in today’s society we live in, it’s difficult to say that we can’t work with cops when they’re so embedded in our communities,” said Valerie Arendt, executive director of NASW North Carolina . “I think social workers can and do amazing work in these systems.”
Lucas Cooper, chief of Alexandria, the Kentucky Police Department, said the department hired its first social worker in 2016 and now employs two alongside 17 full-time officers. While Cooper initially opposed the plan and instead wanted more officials, he now sees the program as essential and a step in the right direction to address deficiencies in policing.
“You have different skills,” he said. “We don’t know the specifics of this world and we don’t know what social services are available.” They fill a lot of gaps. “
However, Leah Jacobs, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, says there is little research to suggest that police-social worker collaboration is effective.
“In fact, there is some evidence that the opposite may be the case: if you work better with the police, it can lead to worse results and more damage,” she said.
Rather than continuing what they see as punishment-based approaches, opponents of police and social workers recommend investing more in community-based interventions.
In her recent article, Defund the Police: Towards Anticarcinogenic Social Work, Jacobs lists examples of these creative interventions, including programs to restore justice in schools that involve mediating conflict resolution and providing alternatives to incarceration and Suspension is in the foreground.
Scott Roberts, executive director of criminal justice campaigns at Color Of Change – the nation’s largest advocacy group for digital racial justice – said interventions should be tailored to the needs of individual communities, and therefore should be completely different from one community to the next.
“When we say we want to change the police, we are not saying that we should just join other institutions like social work,” he said. “We need to redefine police and public safety, including social work.”
Perin acknowledges that she is cautious about initiatives that are “pet projects within the police department with social workers” but sees the need for immediate practical action.
“Now if we could take down the policing and build something else, we should do it. But that’s not the reality, “said Perin.” We have to work to break down the system while preventing harm. “
Fernando is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity Team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/christinetfern.