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.