In July 2016, Miami police shot and nearly killed behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey while he was attending to a patient with autism. In footage captured by a bystander, Kinsey calmly tells officers that neither he nor his patient is a threat. The man had run away from his group home. Kinsey was there to bring him back. Police believed Kinsey’s patient had a gun. While lying on the street with his hands up, Kinsey tells them there’s been a mix-up: There is no weapon, only a toy truck. But an officer opens fire anyway, striking Kinsey in the leg. Police then turn him on his back, handcuff him, and leave him bleeding on the road for 20 minutes before an ambulance arrives.
Kinsey could have left his patient, but he stayed because, as terrifying as this must have been for him, that’s what it means to be a social worker: We prioritize our vulnerable clients’ needs over our own fears. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in many police shootings, officers often do the opposite.
Since the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and other recent disturbing incidents of police violently responding to vulnerable people, a growing national consensus is coalescing around the importance of social work and skilled crisis intervention as alternatives to policing. And it makes sense. Problems arising from substance use disorders, mental health diagnoses, and poverty require trained medical professionals and social workers, not arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. Yet many, including the National Association of Social Workers, are suggesting a dangerous middle ground: that social workers should work hand in hand with police in response to mental and medical health crises.
This recommendation has already been deployed in cities like Houston, where trained social workers employed by the city’s Crisis Intervention Response Team are embedded with sheriff’s deputies or police officers who escort them to service calls. This may be preferable to a system in which police are the only ones available to respond to these incident, but as a career social worker and past director of social work at the Maryland Public Defender, the concept of dispatching armed officers to help people in crisis is antithetical to everything I know.
I know firsthand how social workers work to create and sustain safety, stability, and health—and how routinely police undermine these goals. 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. Prior to leading social work in Maryland, I saw the same pattern as a social worker in a juvenile facility and then the local jail: the response of officers, looking to control and suppress instead of solve problems, typically only escalated a situation.
Our approach, founded on clinical intervention with the goal of healing, produces longer-term results by focusing on the root causes of behaviors that lead to arrests, jail, and convictions. By helping to create conditions of individual and collective safety and stability, we work to prevent crime before it may occur. Day after day, social workers do the quiet labor of rebuilding our society. We support vulnerable people living in poverty or struggling with mental health, housing, and substance abuse issues, people who are disproportionately targeted by police and dragged into that downward spiral of our brutal criminal legal system.
Many of the people I serve in these communities are also survivors of violence—often inflicted by police. They have witnessed family members and get neighbors brutally arrested, lived through nighttime raids, and are surveilled and mistreated by armed officers in their neighborhoods and schools. And when they call for help during a crisis, police regularly escalate rather than diffuse conflict. They traumatize the people we serve.
It isn’t just a matter of a lack of training, tools, or resources on the part of police. History shows us that police were in fact created to maintain and perpetuate many of our deepest social problems, from slavery to racial segregation. The United States followed enslavement with decades of disinvestment in public health, school segregation, social policies that created housing disparity and a racial wealth gap. That history continues today, making it almost impossible for police to deal with these issues constructively, especially in Black and brown neighborhoods that face overpolicing as a response to problems that have arisen amid decades of disinvestment.
Attempting to do social work while a police officer hovers nearby would not only be counterproductive—it would also be emotionally violent. Beyond the ever-present risk of physical harm, police heighten anxiety and make it harder for social workers to do already challenging work.
The need to separate social working from policing, therefore, is not just a practical, outcome-oriented matter. It is a moral imperative. Social workers must not be complicit in a system of violence founded on racial oppression. We already have enough work to do as a profession to reckon with our own role in perpetuating social control through jails and prisons, community supervision, and child protective services. The racist past and present of policing in this country is at direct odds with social work as a profession, our ethical principles of a commitment to our clients and their self-determination, and the importance of human relationships in helping our clients. In our work, there is no place for the isolation, shame, and violence that are hallmarks of policing.
Of course, simply replacing police with social workers is not the answer. Unless divestment from mass criminalization is paired with profound investment in public health, housing, education, jobs, poverty alleviation, and a mental health system that does not simply replicate the existing system of oppression, we risk settling for slight improvements to a continued costly failure.
But it is a start. Trained professionals, not police, are best positioned to respond to mental and behavioral health emergencies, including crises related to substance use, lack of housing, or inadequate health care. Polling shows that voters recognize these responsibilities must be removed from the purview of law enforcement. The same system that is responsible for our clients’ trauma, humiliation, and suffering should not take a role in their redemption.