People in Crisis Need Social Workers, Not Cops

Vivianne Guevara & Nakia Winfield

Social Workers address crises regularly and without an armed police officer standing in front of us. Often, the presence of an armed officer escalates a crisis that could have been better handled by mental health professionals alone.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

The uprisings taking place across the nation and the world have brought unprecedented attention to police brutality, not as an abnormality, but as the building block of an institution that all too often relies on violence at the expense of community safety. It has led people around the country to call for reallocating funds from law enforcement to social work professionals, peer specialists, and other mental and medical health experts. This move would put people who have knowledge, values, and skills that have proven more effective in responding to issues that police officers are not trained to handle—including homelessness, mental health concerns, domestic violence, and others—in the position to help their communities.

Even as many are making an effort to advance these non-policing strategies, others are attempting to keep law enforcement as an essential part of responding to these issues—an approach that is fundamentally at odds with a human centered lens. As social workers required to support social justice for individuals and communities as part of our practice and in accordance with our ethical standards, we refuse to be used as a political tool to slow or stop the much needed calls for defunding or abolishing our current policing system.

Police have become the first and only response to the health needs of highly vulnerable people, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are programs that have existed across the country for decades that have shown the clear, positive impact of using appropriate mental health professionals to respond to those in crisis. Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon and the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) in Olympia, Washington are just two examples of crisis intervention teams that respond to calls related to behavioral health. These teams of mental, medical, and experienced crisis workers provide immediate stabilization in case of urgent medical need or psychological crisis and help determine the next stage of treatment. These programs offer a common-sense solution to actions stemming from behavioral health or poverty challenges by addressing emergency situations without risk of escalation, serious harm, and death.

While non-policing alternatives exist, some are attempting to maintain law enforcement as a default option by suggesting that social workers join with police to address the racism and racial violence that they have perpetuated. As social workers, we refuse to involve violence workers in our practice. Police have too often inflicted harm instead of helping those in crisis. For many in our community, it can be life-threatening to engage with police who are often the first responders to a mental health crisis. Social workers and peer support specialists are trained to de-escalate and address mental health crises, family crises, crises based in past trauma and more. Beyond the immediate crisis a social worker might be responding to, we also have the ability to connect people with the much needed resources and support that can help prevent future crises.

Social Workers address crises regularly and without an armed police officer standing in front of us. Often, the presence of an armed officer escalates a crisis that could have been better handled by mental health professionals alone. Criminalizing and escalating mental health episodes in particular is all too common. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition. One in four people killed by the police have a mental health issue.

Allying social workers with police simply is not the magic ingredient to solving racism and brutality in law enforcement. We are reckoning with racism ourselves. Racism and anti-Blackness has been entrenched in social service institutions. Creating an unholy alliance whereby social workers attempt to serve the community under the threat of a gun and a badge not only limits our ability to practice, it undermines the ability of our field to become the allies and agents of change we need now more than ever.  Building the trust and alliances needed for change in marginalized communities is already a delicate process, especially since we often enact softer, gentler versions of policing. We recognize that in a field grappling with white supremacy, that often sends white professionals into neighborhoods of color, our ability to build trust and a sense of safety among those we serve is severely limited by association with police.

We can’t build trust — or do our jobs — if we walk into communities during the most vulnerable moment of crisis with the very people who have historically brutalized them. 

We are diligently working to deal with our own racism so that we will be ready to answer the call to make our communities safe and well. But we must do so by adhering to the values of our profession and aligning with those who are on the side of racial justice in order to actually protect those we serve.

Vivianne Guevara, LMSW has been a social worker in criminal and civil defense for over twelve years and is the Director of Social Work and Mitigation at the Federal Defenders of New York in the Eastern District. Vivianne was previously an Investigator and Social Worker at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and she began working in public defense as a Social Worker at the Bronx Defenders in 2007. Vivianne Guevara is a restorative and transformative justice practitioner and implements peacemaking processes in her work and communities.

Nakia Winfield, MSW is an antiracism workshop facilitator and political social worker who uses an interdisciplinary, anti-oppressive lens to examine power dynamics across social systems   While at NASW-TX, she focused her research on the intersection of mental health and oppression using an antiracist lens. A Resource Trainer for the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, she recently co-chaired NASW’s Race Equity Accountability and Leadership committee, created to provide an antiracist lens through which social workers view their role in systems in Texas.

People in Crisis Need Social Workers, Not Cops