The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement began gaining momentum after the killing of Trayvon Martin — and the acquittal of the police officer who shot him — in the early 2010s. But the graphic video of the killing of George Floyd triggered a wave of public outrage so large that some media outlets called it the largest movement in U.S. history.
One of the prominent rallying cries heard during the following protests nationwide was, "Defund the police." People shouted it through megaphones, displayed it on protest signs, and painted it on the street leading to the White House.
The Black Visions Collective and other prominent BLM voices heard during the weeks after George Floyd's death popularized the three-word slogan. But the sentiment to defund or restructure law enforcement dates back to the early 20th century.
"When people say 'defund the police,' they're saying that the police already get a substantial amount of money and that they are also still being harmful for communities. It's saying overhaul the system, fix the system, do something different."
– Sydney James, licensed clinical social worker
In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote "Black Reconstruction in America." The book advocated for the removal of prisons, convict leasing, and white police forces. In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party carried the torch, promoting the restructuring of police departments.
"I think that a lot of people, especially politicians and people who really don't want to make these changes, focus so much on the words [defund the police], but not on what people are actually saying," said Sydney James, a licensed clinical social worker in Illinois and Florida. James started Black on Black Therapy, an online therapy practice that caters to people of color.
Conservative commentators and politicians were quick to criticize the mantra, dismissing it as radicalism. A minority does believe in slashing funding to police entirely. But the more popular viewpoint suggests directing more funding to address the social issues at the root of crime. Examples include poverty, homelessness, and mental health conditions.
More than 1 in 5 people shot and killed by police have mental health conditions, according to Washington Post data.
"When people say 'defund the police,' they're saying that the police already get a substantial amount of money and that they are also still being harmful for communities. It's saying overhaul the system, fix the system, do something different," James said.
"Just because we're saying 'defund' doesn't necessarily mean that folks don't want police or that we don't think that they can be helpful. It's saying let's reallocate."
Since the 1970s, spending on policing in the U.S. nearly tripled, but federal funding for social programs has not kept up. As a result, police have taken on duties outside their realm of training. Duties include dealing with people who manage substance misuse or mental health conditions. Tragic stories like that of Patrick Warren Sr., Ricardo Muñoz, and Walter Wallace Jr. — all of whom lived with mental health conditions and were shot and killed by responding police officers — come to mind.
More than 1 in 5 people shot and killed by police have mental health conditions, according to Washington Post data. James believes this gap in training contributes to instances of police brutality.
Many left-leaning politicians voiced their support of the concept following the killing of George Floyd. Examples include congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, President Joe Biden, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Can Social Workers Stop Police Brutality?
With aggressive police tactics being called into question, the idea of using social workers instead of police, or increasing the collaboration between the two groups, began to gain traction.
Social workers cannot perform all the functions of police officers, as they do not receive training in self-defense or how to handle highly stressful situations. But their skillsets are often useful in non-violent circumstances, which constitute about 95% of emergency calls.
"[Social workers] bring a different skillset to the table. We don't know the ins and outs of that world and what social services are available. They fill in a lot of gaps."
– Lucas Cooper, police chief, as quoted in the Seattle Times
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) backed the idea. Its CEO, Angelo McClain, wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal saying social workers help police officers "do their jobs more effectively and humanely."
Alexandria, Kentucky is one city that has seen success with this concept. The police department brought on its first social worker in 2016 to respond to 911 calls. The town's current police chief, Lucas Cooper, said the program alleviates officers from repeat calls and gets residents the help they need.
"[Social workers] bring a different skillset to the table," Cooper was quoted saying in the Seattle Times. "We don't know the ins and outs of that world and what social services are available. They fill in a lot of gaps."
Many other cities, like Dallas and Houston, are experimenting with similar programs. They often send a paramedic, a police officer, or both alongside a social worker. Similarly, the Los Angeles and San Antonio police departments partner with mental health professionals to work as "co-responders" when addressing mental health crises.
But other cities use models that do not involve the police. Examples include Denver's program and the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon. The latter program has been around since 1989. In 2019, its crisis assistance teams responded to about 24,000 calls, about one-fifth of all 911 dispatches. One-hundred fifty of them required police backup.
Similar pilot programs continue to crop up around the country. But not all of them have proven immediate successes. In Portland, Oregon, City Hall started sending a two-person crisis team to non-violent calls. The team included one paramedic and one social worker. But the team only took 60 calls over about 40 business days, which was lower than expected. With a $4.8 million budget, the pressure for the program to succeed is high.
Concerns from Social Workers
But the concept of using social workers instead of police has not been universally popular. Social workers themselves have criticized the idea.
"This alliance of police and social work can be harmful in certain communities and communities of color. If we're already fearing the police and then we're also going to fear those who are supposed to be helping us because they're connected to the police, then there's no avenue to really have an opening, to be able to work with folks on the issues that they have."
– Sydney James, licensed clinical social worker
In an open letter published in July 2020, the Social Service Workers United-Chicago (SSWU-Chicago) criticized the NASW's endorsement of collaborating with the police. It also created a petition with 1,700 signatures demanding more significant reform.
"If all we do is replace police with social workers ... we will simply subject vulnerable people to cops by a different name," the letter reads. The NASW never responded.
Social workers worry that appearing alongside police officers could damage the public's perception of them and prevent them from doing their jobs.
Social workers already battle against hesitancy from historically excluded communities to accept their help. In the past, social workers blocked Black people from gaining the right to vote. They carried out government initiatives to separate Native American children from their families. They disproportionately put Black children into foster care. These actions resulted in an understandable distrust for the system.
"This alliance of police and social work can be harmful in certain communities and communities of color. If we're already fearing the police and then we're also going to fear those who are supposed to be helping us because they're connected to the police, then there's no avenue to really have an opening, to be able to work with folks on the issues that they have," James said.
Another social worker, Lori James-Townes, agreed, writing, "Social workers cannot build trust with people if we respond to a crisis accompanied by police. Police come armed with tasers, guns, and batons, prepared to deploy violence and punishment. Social workers show up with a willingness to listen, engage, and help heal."
And does bringing social workers instead of police to emergencies even address the issue of police brutality?
"I honestly think to send them to the scenes together is just putting a bandaid over the problem," James said. "I think it misses the mark … to just say, 'We'll have social workers come to the scene with us,' well, that wouldn't have prevented what happened to George Floyd."
As Jonathan Foiles, a lecturer at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, wrote in a July 2020 article: "The solution to the problem of modern policing cannot only be having social workers work alongside police or respond to people in mental health crises, for the problem is modern policing itself."
"It somehow makes it that the social workers should be responsible for preventing police brutality from happening, which doesn't allow for police to take accountability for the fact that this is happening on their end," James added.
Finally, there is a concern for the physical safety of social workers, who do not receive training to address the kinds of disputes that police officers deal with.
"I think for certain 911 calls, a social worker can be helpful — during a clear mental health crisis, absolutely. But when we talk about things like domestic violence, and we know those are the most dangerous calls, I wouldn't put social workers in that situation," James said. "That is something that is honestly out of our wheelhouse."
Eugene, Oregon's model, which sends a medic and crisis worker (without a police officer) to address certain emergencies, may work well because the city is smaller and has a relatively low crime rate. But James points out that this strategy might not succeed in a city like Chicago.
Sending a police officer along with a social worker would ensure the social worker's safety. But that model needs significant financial investment.
Social workers like James and Foiles would rather see increased funding go two places: to better training for police officers and existing social services programs.
"First of all, we don't even have half the [social] programs that we really need or the funding for the programs that we really need," James said.
Foiles explains, "We can only refer them to mental health treatment or housing solutions if such resources exist in the first place."
But stronger collaboration between police and social services is not necessarily a bad idea.
"I think both have to work hand in hand. We need to train our police officers on how to work with social workers and how to work within the community," James said.
"[We should] put the funding towards the programs where folks get sent after a situation has been handled. But then that would mean that we need to train our cops better to handle different mental health type issues or different intimate partner violence type issues. So that those who are in the situation actually stay alive long enough to then overcome it."
Dr. Paige J. Gardner, Ph.D.
Dr. Paige J. Gardner is currently an assistant professor of student development administration at Seattle University. As a queer, Black, cisgender woman of color, Dr. Gardner is deeply invested in advocating, empowering, and building solidarity-based coalitions with and for those on the margins of society.
Paige Gardner is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
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