Cops Morphing Into Social Workers Is Not a Solution

April 23, 2019

All across the US, law enforcement asserts its power through its sheer visibility in a vast array of public spaces.

In New York City, it’s virtually impossible to go anywhere without encountering officers from the NYPD. Get on the subway and you’ll see Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) police on the platforms or behind a table, searching riders’ bags. MTA police have headquarters in dozens of subway stations, including Times Square and Grand Central. Cops are stationed in schools, toothey’re called “school safety agents.” This horribly misconceived role has led, for example in Chicago, to officers beating or killing students.

In New York City, police relentlessly patrol low-income housing developments, where an estimated 400,000 people live. If you call an ambulance, the police will show up. Cops patrol parks on bikes, horses and Segways. They even hang out at pools: At the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center in my neighborhood of Manhattan, the police have a poolside office. With an annual budget of $5.58 billion and 36,000 uniformed officers, the NYPD has the resources to be everywhere.  

The opioid-involved overdose crisis has created another space for law enforcement to expand its power. The police have in many cases morphed into social work roles. In this way, they embed themselves into the private lives of people who use drugs.


An Uncritical Reception

These role transitions are usually received positively. Media coveragewith headlines like: “The Police Aren’t Just Getting You in TroubleThey Actually Care;” “Social workers, overdose reversers, counselors: Why are Philly police tasked with so much more than law enforcement;” and “Massachusetts Chiefs Tack in Drug War: Steer Addicts to Rehab, Not Jail”testifies to this. Now, when police find people using drugs or arrive on the scene of an overdose, they are there to help, to administer naloxone and make referrals, not slap on the handcuffs.

Of course, celebrating “any positive change” is harm reduction. It is positive if police reverse an overdose, or if a person who would previously have been jailed is spared.

Police encroachment into social work territory is a problem—one that human rights advocates can’t ignore.

Yet we need a critical analysis that goes beyond what the headlines proclaim. Police encroachment into social work territory is a problem—one that human rights advocates can’t ignore. Because it blinds us to the continuing, large-scale criminalization of marginalized drug users, and obscures chronic underinvestment in non-carceral systems of care.

One example of the police role-reinvention came in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2016, when Leonard Campanello, Gloucester’s police chief, posted this message on Facebook:

“Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc.) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged. Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery and send them for treatment ‘on the spot.’”

Sure, it’s better than arrest. But the human rights implications are still severe: Drug users have to  “turn themselves in” to access treatment, and if they do so, “treatment,” however the police understand it, is mandatory. What happens if the person doesn’t want the treatment on offer is left unsaid. The police link the “addict” with an “angel,” a volunteer with some knowledge of addiction, to offer moral support. Then the cop takes a history and starts calling rehab facilities.

The Gloucester police department has developed an extensive network of addiction treatment resources. A study of the Angel Program found that 95 percent of drug users got a direct referral to treatment—compared to a 63 percent referral rate for a treatment-placement program at Boston Medical Center. The study concluded: “Factors that enabled referrals included the motivation of participants to enter treatment, as evidenced by their coming to the police station,” and “the fact that officers search for placements 24 hours a day and the provision of transportation.”

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, in Plymouth, a police officer and an addiction recovery coach show up at the homes of people who have recently suffered a non-fatal overdose and offer a fast track into drug treatment. And per the Arlington Outreach Initiative, when police arrest an opioid dealer, they also contact all of the dealer’s former customers and offer treatment. This police role also steps outside of criminal justice interactions and raises issues of privacy and confidentiality. Hospital staff in Arlington, for example, routinely contact a “police clinician” when they discharge patients with substance use issues to arrange follow-up treatment.

In Laconia, New Hampshire, Eric Adams a former prison guard and undercover narcotics officer, has a new job and title: Prevention, Enforcement and Treatment Coordinator. His business cards say, ‘‘The Laconia Police Department recognizes that substance misuse is a disease. We understand you can’t fight this alone.’’ Adams visits drug users in jail, makes referrals for rehab, drives people to treatment, calls landlords for housing, and speaks at high schools about the overdose crisis.   

Again, it’s resources—resources that should be allocated elsewhere—that allow police to play such wide-ranging roles. Money for law enforcement to provide services to drug users comes, for example, from the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI.) The organization offers support and resources to help law enforcement agencies nationwide create non-arrest pathways to treatment and recovery. Over 400 police departments in 32 states are in the network, and they’ve helped 12,000 people get into drug treatment.

These empathic officers so beloved by the media would come as a big surprise to many substance usersespecially those who are poor, people of color or homeless.

Many of those people are probably grateful. But again, we need to understand the knock-on effects. In media portrayals of “police social workers,” they cry when drug users overdose or die, attend funerals, offer hugs and challenge stigma. The photos that accompany these profiles show cops smiling, sitting in their office and talking calmly with drug users. No doubt many are well-intentioned.

But these empathic officers so beloved by the media would come as a big surprise to many substance usersespecially those who are poor, people of color, homeless or live in encampments.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is another iteration of this idea. LEAD was launched in Seattle in 2011, and participating police can choose to divert low-level drug users and dealers to treatment instead of jail.    

No jail is better than jail. But jail, in case we forget, remains the reality for many thousands of people who use illegal drugs. If addiction is a “disease,” not a crime, why are the police involved at all? If the criminal justice system “can’t arrest its way out of this problem”—a line that so many officials and politicians now spout—why are the police still arresting drug dealers and users en masse, and prosecutors charging them with drug-induced homicide?



Three Big Problems With This Approach

The crisis that claimed the lives of over 70,000 people in 2017 has devastated families and entire communities. It has exposed understaffed, underfunded, outdated and dysfunctional drug treatment and social work systems that can’t adequately respond to the crisis and cut rates of overdose deaths.

The accessibility and availability of drug rehabilitation has been a problem for decades, especially for those in rural communities, the poor and the uninsured. Law enforcement has been able to insert itself into the lives of drug users because of the crisis and chaos in drug treatment. It’s both bizarre and ironic: The police who have been waging the war on drug users for decades are now charged with helping them? It’s wrongheaded and unethical for several reasons.

First, it allows for the expansion of police power into yet another area of people’s lives that they have no business being in.

“As a harm reduction advocate, I keep trying to get treatment programs out of bed with the criminal justice system,” Dr. Patt Denning, director of clinical services and training at the Center for Harm Reduction Therapy told Filter. “Accepting their funding means revealing confidential information that could get the person jailednot a role for drug counselors. Having the police actually be the intake person just reinforces this relationship. Clients have no autonomy and no privacy.”

Second, money and resources that should go to community-based, harm reduction organizations get funneled instead to already-well-funded police departments—increasing police power at the expense of departments that do not arrest people.

As Alex Vitale, a professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, has explained: 

“What distinguishes the police from other government workers is their ability and authorization to use violence. While [police] may attempt to solve things through dialogue initially, at the end of the day they will turn to the use or threat of violence as the ultimate way to solve a problem.”

And third, the police are just not qualified to do social work. It’s insulting to social workers, peer educators and drug counselors—all of whom must obtain various levels of education, experience, training and credentials to work with substance users—to see untrained or little-trained cops attempting to do their jobs.


The Goal: Separate Law Enforcement From Drug Use

Alternative models must be developed and implemented. Instead of funding and deploying cops, money should be spent to create mobile teams comprised of social workers, peer-recovery specialists and mental health experts—an evolution and expansion of mental health crisis teams like those in New York.

Teams like this should be on the front-lines everywhere, responding to drug users in crisis. Instead of going to the police station to ask for treatment, drug users should have access to evidence-based treatment on demand and 24-hour drop-in centers in their communities without any threat of punitive consequences. Funding must be increased for drug rehabilitation and mental health services that are not affiliated with the criminal justice system. Drug courts do not qualify.

“The police should never be the point of contact for people to get into services.”

Some in law enforcement acknowledge the contradictions and problems inherent in police involvement with substance users. Chief Brendan Cox, director of policing strategies for the LEAD National Support Bureau, summed up the problem at the WNY Harm Reduction conference in November 2018: “The police should never be the point of contact for people to get into services. We shouldn’t be here in 20 years still talking about LEAD.”

Arlington police chief and PAARI co-chair Frederick Ryan said, “Who would have thought that the access to treatment for somebody in opiate addiction would be through the lobby of a police station? That really highlights a failure of the healthcare system. … I hope that at some point we put ourselves out of business, and health care and public health take the ball.”

Cops like Cox and Ryan acknowledge the bigger picture that most commentary misses: That while good can come out of less punitive policing, this should be seen only as a small step on the way to a very different goal. The police and the criminal justice system should be put permanently out of the business of responding to the needs of drugs users.

As Jeannie Little, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of the Center for Harm Reduction Therapy, succinctly put it to Filter: “Men and women in uniforms who carry guns shouldn’t be doing social work.”

Photo by James Perez on Unsplash

Helen Redmond

Helen is Filter's senior editor and a multimedia journalist. She is on the methadone, vaping and nicotine train. Helen is also a filmmaker. Her two documentaries about methadone are Liquid Handcuffs and Swallow THIS. As an LCSW, she has worked with people who use drugs for over two decades. Helen is an adjunct assistant professor and teaches a course about the War on Drugs at NYU. She lives in Harlem.

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