Date01 April 2021
AuthorGoble, Celia

Introduction 1022 I. Protests, Vigilantes, and Charity: Policing and Social Work Reform and the Quest for Professionalization 1077 A. Black Lives Matter 1077 B. The Police in the United States 1029 C. Social Workers in the United States 1032 D. 911: The Current Emergency Response System 1035 II. Social Workers Recognize the Issues in Police Emergency Response but Disagree on Whether They Are the Solution 1036 A. No, Social Workers Should Not Be Involved in Law Enforcement 1037 i. The Police Are Not Sufficiently Trained in Working with Mental Health Issues or Mental Health Workers 1037 ii. BIPOC and Other Marginalized Communities Already See Social Workers as Agents of State Control 1041 B. Yes, Social Workers Should Be Involved in Law Enforcement 1043 i. Social Workers Should Work Within Police Departments 1043 ii. Social Workers Should Work in Partnership with Police as Co-responders 1046 iii. Social Workers Should Work as Community Responders (911-Routed) 1047 III. Social Workers and Police: Collaboration in Practice 1050 A. Social Workers Within Police Departments 1050 B. Social Workers in Partnership with Police as Co-responders 1051 C. Social Workers as Community Responders (911-Routed) 1054 D. An NYC Pilot Program in the Works 1055 IV. A Proposal for New York and Other Cities Contemplating Change 1057 A. The Community Responder Model: An Alternative to Traditional Police Reform 1057 B. A Path Forward: Public Data, 911 Reform, Direct Funding, and a Holistic Approach 1059 1065 INTRODUCTION

Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi established the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 in response to Trayvon Martin's death and his killer's subsequent acquittal. (1) Since then, their movement has gained traction around the world with the protests in response to the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd. (2) During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, people across the United States joined in calls to defund the police and increase community investment. Advocates suggest that social workers could replace or supplement police officers, although some social workers passionately object to their further incorporation into law enforcement. (3) Social workers, as well as law enforcement members, fiercely debate whether an increase in collaborative work is the right policy move.

Those in favor of incorporating social workers into law enforcement and emergency response highlight the extensive training that social workers undergo for licensure. (4) Social workers have experience in deescalation and routinely work with people with mental illnesses or disabilities. (5) Social workers also have experience with diagnosis, assessment, and intervention, among other crucial skills for emergency response work. (6) Further, proponents point out that social workers are already integrated into police emergency response teams. (7) Angelo McClain, the CEO of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), argues that these social workers support the police in responding to emergency calls more compassionately and "help police excel in fulfilling their mission to protect and serve," (8) and further incorporation would support the progress already made.

On the other hand, there are various reasons why social workers should not be the sole responders to emergency calls. Law enforcement officers cannot be easily replaced when it comes to responding to violent situations. (9) The dispatchers responsible for routing the calls to the correct response team may not recognize whether a call is mental health-related or potentially violent prior to dispatch. (10) Social workers responding to a misidentified call are at an increased risk of injury or death; unlike law enforcement, social workers do not usually carry self-protection devices. (11) They also object to working within a system that they feel lacks accountability for harassment, brutality, and other forms of violence. (12) Social workers may also struggle with the fact that anti-Blackness and racism impact the social work field as well as law enforcement. (13)

While the debate continues among social workers, the federal executive branch has taken action, encouraging the integration of social workers into law enforcement. In response to the protests on June 16, 2020, President Trump issued an executive order, "Safe Policing for Safe Communities," calling for independent oversight of law enforcement and setting out standards to improve community relations and policing more broadly. (14) In pursuit of these goals, the order aimed to promote, increase, and expand the role of social workers in collaboration with the police on emergency response. (15) The NASW responded to the executive order on June 18, 2020, emphasizing its inadequacy in the face of systemic racism, anti-Blackness, and public distrust of the police. (16) Then-President-elect Biden supported a similar approach, calling for social workers and other mental health professionals to respond alongside the police to emergency calls to assist in de-escalation. (17) However, Biden had also endorsed setting up a "national study group" with members of both professions and representatives from marginalized communities to facilitate discussion on future reform. (18)

The U.S. Congress has taken a different route. Shortly prior to Trump's executive order, Representative Karen Bass introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 (the Floyd Justice Act) on June 8, 2020. (19) The Floyd Justice Act, passed by the House on June 25, calls for more comprehensive police reforms and community oversight, but it does not explicitly mention social work. (20) The Act expands the provision of Byrne Grants, or federal justice funding, (21) to include funding for "local task force[s] on public safety innovation" involving partnerships with community-based organizations and other "non-law enforcement strategies." (22) The NASW endorsed the Act in its press release criticizing the Executive Order, and noted that Representative Bass is herself a social worker. (23) On a local level, municipal governments nationwide explore whether and how best to incorporate social workers into their emergency response teams. (24)

The experience of other cities can help inform these debates. Several cities throughout the country have partnered with mental health professionals in their emergency response teams, including law enforcement, paramedics, or social workers, or a combination of two or three of these professions. (25) These cities include Eugene, Oregon; Dallas, Texas; and Denver, Colorado. (26) As these cities have recruited social workers and other non-law enforcement professionals, they have navigated several administrative, regulatory, and policy-related issues, such as whether social work professionals should be considered part of the police department or a distinct entity, whether law enforcement officers should respond alongside these professionals, and how to measure the success of these changes to their law enforcement systems by looking at a reduction in crime or other metrics.

As cities without these programs consider reform, there are important lessons to gain from existing programs. Each city's policymakers must tailor its program to meet their community's needs, but several points apply broadly. First, the social workers should respond separately from, rather than alongside, the police. Second, the currently available research on emergency response teams involving social workers is limited, and policymakers should establish reporting requirements to begin developing best practices that other cities and programs may learn from in the future. Third, the program should be integrated into the existing 911 dispatch system to promote its use, and 911 dispatchers and responders should receive both mental health and anti-racist training. Fourth, a successful program incorporating social workers should not be linked to police funding, but should receive sufficient public funding to ensure round-the-clock availability. Finally, the program should operate with a holistic approach by providing follow-up and non-emergency services to the community.

Part I of this Note provides a brief overview of policing and social work in the United States and how the Black Lives Matter movement has fueled dialogue about incorporating more social workers into law enforcement. Particular focus is given to New York City, New York, and Eugene, Oregon, to highlight the differences in qualifications and regulations of the two professions. Part II examines the debate among social workers and advocates who support or oppose closer cooperation between social workers and the police. Part II also examines policy disagreements on the side in favor of cooperation. Part III provides examples from cities that have implemented different strategies. Part IV takes key features and lessons from other cities to suggest a policy proposal that may be implemented for New York City moving forward. It also proposes a solution influenced by the community responder program from Eugene, Oregon, and draws structural inspiration from the organization of New York City's public defenders.


    The Black Lives Matter movement and its call to "defund the police" have caused people throughout the country to consider limiting the role of the police in their communities and increasing the role of social workers. Policymakers looking to reform the current emergency response system should consider the demands of the movement, as well as the history and professionalization of law enforcement and social work in the United States. They should also consider the development of and controversy surrounding the current 911 emergency response number. This Part provides a brief introduction to each of these topics.

    1. Black Lives Matter

      The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013, and...

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