In the past several weeks, amid unprecedented protests responding to recent high-profile deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police, Americans’ opinion on law enforcement has profoundly shifted. Large-scale reform suddenly seems like a distinct possibility. One common refrain on social media and elsewhere suggests that we replace cops with social workers. This has largely taken the form of a broad gesture, with people intuiting that social workers, who are trained to nonviolently aid those in crisis might have a better hope of resolving problems than cops, but professional associations for social workers have joined the chorus too. The National Association of Social Workers itself gestured toward this idea in a June 16 tweet: “@realDonaldTrump signed an executive order calling for more police training. #socialworkers will be integral: ‘This is what they have studied and worked on all their lives. We will have the best of them put in our police departments…’ ” The New York chapter of the NASW was even more direct, posting a since-deleted graphic stating, “social workers belong in police departments.” But as a social worker myself, I greet this newfound zeal for our work with some suspicion and reluctance. In order to fully understand why, it helps to know something about the history of my discipline.
The United States only began widespread social programs to aid the disenfranchised during the Great Depression. Before then, most forms of aid were administered through private benevolent societies funded by the upper class. These funds were most often distributed by members of the societies, primarily women, known as “friendly visitors.” They would visit the poor where they lived and try to encourage them to lift themselves out of poverty through a combination of personal stories and moral persuasion while helping dispense some aid. They did provide some relief, but the problems with the model are starkly obvious: They did little to challenge the systems that made such people poor in the first place and were mainly focused on assuaging the guilt of the privileged.
Other proto–social workers resisted this model, believing that to be effective, one must live in the community in which one works. Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, is perhaps the most representative of this approach. Addams founded Hull House in 1889, and over time, the organization compiled a variety of services to aid the working-class immigrants who were its neighbors: kindergarten and day care facilities, an art gallery, libraries, art classes, and an employment bureau, among others. Addams was an outspoken public intellectual and pacifist, and she would be rewarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her efforts. She was also a eugenicist, a position she shared with many other early social workers and supposed progressives in the early part of the 20th century. Addams and others were attracted to the scientific veneer of eugenics and saw it as a way to prevent the widespread suffering they routinely witnessed.
The efforts of the friendly visitors and the settlement house residents combined over time to form the discipline of social work. Colleagues of Addams’ founded the graduate school where I received my training and now teach, the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, formerly known as the Social Science Center for Practical Training in Philanthropy and Social Work, before it merged with the university in 1920. While there are obvious differences in how we practice today, some features of those earlier efforts have been retained: Many social workers, whether case workers or child protection advocates, visit clients in their homes to offer them services to lift them out of their current situations in some manner. Just as before, the majority of social workers are white, and often the people that we serve are not. There remains an inescapable element of the outsider parachuting in to help the poor and deserving before returning to their homes. None of this is news to most contemporary social workers; these are active conversations we are having at our work, in schools, and across social media. Switching police officers with social workers would do nothing to address the fundamental disparities poisoning the criminal justice system; we would still have a mostly white professional class primarily working with people of color.
More serious proposals for reform have proposed shifting some resources from the police to social workers, so that we could answer calls for people in a mental health crisis. Many cities have tried variations on this approach, and it tends to work pretty well. Police tend to be used to fill in gaps in the public sector, but there is no clear reason why people trained to use force need respond to those in a mental health crisis, or those experiencing homelessness. Social workers and other trained professionals are much more equipped to offer targeted assistance, are much less likely to escalate the situation, and offer solutions that are much more cost effective.
The swap is not sufficient, however. Perhaps most obviously, it’s not always immediately obvious if a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, or if something else is going on. Here is an example, from my neighborhood: Two years ago, police responded to calls that an individual was breaking windows in an alley. They found Charles Thomas, then a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago, in the midst of a likely manic episode caused by his bipolar disorder. The police seemed to have some idea of this, as one of them shouted, “We have a mental” at one point, but that did not stop the officers from shooting him when they reported that he ran toward them and they felt threatened. Thomas survived but was charged with two felonies, and his legal woes are ongoing.
Having social workers integrated into a police department would not have stopped the cops from shooting Charles Thomas. They most likely would not have answered the call because it was not immediately apparent that he was in a mental health crisis, and even if they were present, it is not at all clear that their voices would be regarded above those of the police officers. Social workers would not have prevented the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, or countless others, because these situations are not the results of police not understanding mental health issues but of police not understanding policing. Social workers are also limited by the constraints of our social safety net; we can only refer them to mental health treatment or housing solutions if such resources exist in the first place. 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. Any suggestion for reform that falls short of a wholesale reinvention of what the police do and how exactly they serve us falls short. At worst, it drafts social workers into an unjust system to provide a putative stamp of approval for their actions.
Social work is in the midst of its own reform efforts; after a swift outcry to the NASW’s tweet, it has backed away from any gesture of approval. While I hope that we can contribute to solving the issue of police brutality, we are not the answer. A temptation that has been present within social work from the beginning is to offer a thin veneer of respectability to systems that must be radically reimagined. We should seize the momentum of our moment and not settle for any such compromises. The first step is to begin listening to Black and brown Americans as they share their stories and their efforts at reform; anything less merely continues the dynamics of white supremacy that have led us to this problem in the first place.