Many of those continuing to march in the streets in protest of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks have adopted the rallying cry, “defund the police.” Detractors quickly seized the opportunity to castigate the marchers as delusional for suggesting police departments should be eliminated. Perhaps better phrasing could be found, but it is not much of a stretch to understand the idea of defunding police is to reduce the brutal footprint police have on communities of color. Much of our tax dollars that fund policing—especially money spent on military paraphernalia—could be put to better use by the community.
Concomitant with calls to stop using the police for tasks they are not suited to do were calls for increasing the use of social workers in situations involving people with mental health issues, the homeless, and nonviolent domestic disputes. Utilizing social work in these types of circumstances took on greater import when the White House called for expanded roles for social workers. There was a bit of a brouhaha when a letter by Dr. Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers, appeared in the Wall Street Journal and was interpreted by some social workers as embracing Trump’s executive order. NASW later released a public statement criticizing the executive order as inadequate.
Social workers have worked with police for years. There is an entry in the Encyclopedia of Social Work for Police Social Work. CRISP, the Center for Social Development at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, and the National Association of Social Workers are sponsoring a virtual Congressional Briefing on Tuesday, June 30, from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. (ET) that will feature scholars and practitioners who have studied and worked in situations involving social workers and police. There are a myriad of ways social workers and police can function in tandem to improve public service while curtailing violent policing. We want to tap into their knowledge to inform how best to include social workers in responding to public incidents.
Dr. Michael Sherraden, director of the Center for Social Development and professor at the Brown School, who initiated the idea of the congressional briefing, has an innovative idea—the creation of a new public service entity in communities that might be called the We the People Department. It would move functions not requiring force to this new organizational authority that takes advantage of community resources such as churches and civic organizations, and empower communities to work together to solve problems. An article in Sunday’s New York Times reported a review of data from several cities revealed just a fraction of a police officer’s time is spent on enforcement-related tasks. Most tasks can be handled by others.
Unbundling police work may reduce the potential for conflict between police and minority communities. However, according to Mara Gay, a member of the New York Times editorial board, the extent of violence related to police activities remains unknown. She wrote in her weekend column about the number of deaths by New York City police being underreported. Though fewer New Yorkers are killed by police per capita than other U.S. cities, a review of police-related deaths documented 105 people were killed by New York City police actions between 2010 and 2015, more than double the 46 reported by the police department. The rate of deaths was five time greater for black New Yorkers than white New Yorkers.
The zeitgeist today feels different as more Americans are discovering the breadth and depth of the racial hatred that has permeated these United States since its beginning. Young Americans have heard cries of racism throughout their lives but many were not fully aware of the grotesque cruelty of chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and a brutal criminal justice system. Trump sardonically took credit for making Juneteenth famous. What he did was bring more attention to the particularly savage destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma that will likely result in Juneteenth becoming a national holiday.
Can social workers play a significant role in reducing police-initiated violence? There are many issues to consider: do we have the properly trained workforce to operate effectively in that space? If, not what training is needed and how will it be provided? We begin the conversation on June 30.
This time may be different. I am hearing many people, including former President Barack Obama state that they sense this moment in our history is unique and unprecedented. Several events including the tragic, untimely and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, along with a botched response to a deadly pandemic and the resulting economic crisis have revealed how broken our society is. Some plutocrats are wondering if inequality has gone too far. As hopeful as I would like to be, check with me one year from today. In the meantime, I am going to do what I can to advance ideas that could heal our broken society.
This latest act of police brutality reminded me of the first time the police shooting of a young black male got my attention. As a young community newspaper editor, I wrote about the murder of 10-year-old Clifford Glover who was shot in the back by Thomas Shea, a New York City cop, in the spring of 1973. Young Glover had just gotten out of a car with his stepdad when the police accosted them and he started running. I read about that gruesome event over and over in various stages of disbelief. After Shea was acquitted, my view of the police and society changed forever.
Like most people, I was sickened by the images of disgraced police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on the neck of George Floyd, hand in pocket with a smirk on his face. I have relatives and friends who are police officers. I agree the vast majority do their jobs by the book. But video has brought some bad apples out of the shadows. More police jurisdictions need to study recommendations developed by the Obama Administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The Supreme Court needs to take another look at qualified immunity.
As thousand gather today to mourn the murder of George Floyd and give condolences to his family and friends, we hold on to events and incidents that suggest things may be different this time. The fact that the protests are so widespread--protest marches in 140 cities as well as numerous cities throughout the world involving people of all races and ethnicities—suggests that people are looking beyond their personal spheres of concern. It seems that the world is rallying together to say enough is enough. Is this enough to bring about real change?
I just finished reading Eric Foner’s latest remarkable book on Reconstruction, The Second Founding. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has written several books on Reconstruction and in his latest, he recounts efforts to integrate newly-freed slaves into the American society that led to the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Each was a struggle to ensure equality for blacks, but carefully calibrated not to be on par with the rights and privileges of white Americans. At the end of the day, everyone threw up their hands and told black people they were on their own with no resources to speak of. It is must reading for anyone who would like a better understanding of how we arrived at where we are today.
Our society needs a major overall. Until we genuinely address racism and inequality, we have little chance to keep up with China and other rapidly developing nations. Creating wealth for a few Americans doesn’t make America healthy. It does the opposite. It is leaving our citizens with less education than we need to be competitive. Our roads and infrastructure are crumbling. And we still don’t have a system that provides healthcare for all who need it.
Where do we begin? We begin with a massive investment in educating African Americans who have been denied quality education for centuries. It can be done. But it must be done through a system of public education that is financed by other means than property taxes. Teachers need to be paid. While education is a local isue, the federal government must oversee the investment. This will not just lift African American children, but poor Latino and white children.
These latest tragedies have brought people of goodwill together across racial lines. There is a sense the desire to sincerely address racism and its consequences for society is genuine. But will it last? We have been there before with Hurricane Katrina and Rodney King. How will it be different this time? Count me among the enduring but skeptical optimists. I want to believe changes will be made but check in with me a year from now. Let’s see where things are one year later.