In response to the murders of Black people by police, we have seen sweeping calls for systemic change. Chants heard around the world call for defunding the police. Training police officers in de-escalation has not worked and is not enough to dismantle the legacy of white supremacy and the culture of violence in policing.
Yet this recognition has led many to call for expanding and strengthening partnerships between social workers and the police as a way to reign in police brutality. Today, we are seeing that call at the 2021 National Conference on Police Social Work (October 18-20), sponsored by the City of Bloomington, Indiana and the Bloomington Police Department.
As a social worker who represents people ensnared by New York City’s legal systems, I’ve seen firsthand why social workers cannot be the answer to fix policing. This notion ignores the root of why the police historically caused and continue to perpetuate so much harm. Social workers should not be tasked with mitigating a racist system that was built to surveil and target Black people. Even if, for far too long, social workers have been partnered with police departments around the country, providing cover for the violence police inflict on Black people.
Moving us into precincts in droves is antithetical to our values as a profession.
Moving us into precincts in droves is antithetical to our values as a profession and the Code of Ethics that governs our work. It would further entrench us in the carceral systems that regulate and punish Black communities. Social workers are supposed to challenge injustice, pursue social change, and value the dignity and worth of the people we serve. Our field is intended to support people and connect them with real assistance, not to partner with those who threaten their freedom and their lives.
Many people join our profession with good intentions. We want to contribute to building a more just society. We want to do good work. But we are practicing in systems grounded in institutional racism and infused with white supremacist culture; even the best intentions cannot change that.
We need look no further than the legacy of violence perpetuated in the child protection system to see what social work policing looks like in practice. After all, as activist and community organizer Joyce McMillan says, “some cops are called caseworkers.” Thousands of parents across New York City, and many more around the country, are subject to this form of state surveillance and intervention—what legal scholar Dorothy Roberts calls the “family regulation or family policing system.”
In that system, it is social workers who are doing the policing. In the same ways NYC’s stop-and-frisk policing practice targets Black people, calls to the State Central Registry reporting child maltreatment target Black families. Social workers investigate and make critical decisions in child protection, just as the police do in criminal cases. We decide to take children from their homes, inflicting trauma that lasts a lifetime. We facilitate the disproportionate placement of Black children into the foster system, mirroring the ugly disparities in US jail and prison populations.
Once those children are in the foster system, their outcomes are far worse than their peers’. As clinicians, social workers provide courts with opinions (replete with bias) about whether Black children should ever reunite with their parents. Many never do, despite their parents’ best efforts to bring them home.
Social workers have not only enabled vast racial disparities in the family regulation system, but have been the very instruments of state violence. We have no reason to believe that expanding the role of social workers in police departments would yield different outcomes.
Deploying social workers to work hand-in-hand with police will not create the kinder, gentler criminal legal system that some imagine. Communities impacted by the family regulation system often fear a visit from social workers more than a stop by the police.
Reform efforts focused on the cultures of systems that have terrorized Black people and their families for centuries are not enough to create transformational change. Just as police shouldn’t be in the business of responding to public health crises, social workers shouldn’t be in the business of policing.
Social workers must listen and look to communities most impacted by these systems to imagine a new way forward.
The fundamental flaw in our legal and social service systems is not that there aren’t enough social workers—it’s that these systems are rooted in the belief that Black people and their families need surveillance and intervention. Their premise is that actors in the system know best—that Black communities don’t know what they need to be healthy, to stay safe and to care for their children. As social workers, we must stop lending credibility to these damaging assumptions.
The social work Code of Ethics calls us to fight all forms of social injustice, not to participate in the perpetuation of violence against Black and Brown communities. Rather than investing in expanding social work presence in policing, we should be divesting from all carceral systems, including the police, criminal-legal and family regulation systems.
The National Conference on Police Social Work offers familiar “solutions,” directing more resources to police departments to continue to monitor, surveil and punish Black communities.
Instead, we should be investing in housing, education and true community-based supports that address poverty and are responsive to what people actually need and want. Social workers must listen and look to communities most impacted by these systems to imagine a new way forward.