CHICAGO – Rayshard Brooks was killed last June when Atlanta police responding to a report of a man asleep in a car blocking a drive-thru shot him as he tried to run away. Later that summer, a similar situation in Eugene, Oregon, ended much differently: A man reported sleeping in a car was sent home in a cab.
The key? A mobile crisis intervention team designed to be an alternative to police in nonviolent crises responded to the parking lot, calmed the man, contacted his family and called the taxi.
“I think all the time about how that could've ended differently if police responded instead,” said social work master’s student Michelle Perin, an EMT and crisis worker for the team known as CAHOOTS, short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets.
Social workers have long worked alongside law enforcement, often treating clients in prisons and jails, inpatient psychiatric facilities and immigration detention centers. A 2020 report on reimagining policing by the National Association of Social Workers suggests collaboration could strengthen public safety, reduce racist incidents and improve the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.
Perin said CAHOOTS works independently, but is fully funded by police with members dispatched through the Eugene police-fire-ambulance communications center. Police and firefighters can call for CAHOOTS and, in some cases, CAHOOTS workers may call police if a person seems a danger to themselves or others.
Following high-profile police brutality cases, cities including Denver, New York City, Chicago and Seattle, are exploring similar programs with the philosophy that dispatching social workers and mental health professionals alongside — or in lieu of — law enforcement could prevent police brutality.
But as cities look to these alternatives in reimagining policing, many social workers are warning increased collaboration with law enforcement risks further harming communities of color — and ignores the deep history of systemic racism within social work itself.
Leigh-Anne Francis, an associate professor of African American studies and women, gender and sexuality studies at The College of New Jersey, said offering social workers as a quick fix to systemic racism is flawed, considering the field’s own legacy, tied to its origins in the 1900s.
“The prevailing narrative was that Black people were genetically defective and couldn’t be helped through social work because they were morally corrupt, poisoned,” Francis said. “They were irredeemable.”
While she said many are quick to see social workers as inherently good, the ghosts of systemically racist policies — like the 1958 Indian Adoption Project to break up Indigenous families and the embrace of the eugenics movement to root out what social workers saw as undesirable traits, including being Black — linger in the predominantly white field today.
Social workers contribute to the criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, said Julia Lyon, a Pennsylvania social worker and member of Social Service Workers United. She sees racism almost every day in social workers’ evaluations of clients, saying they’re more likely to place blame on people of color and advocate for their punishment.
“If you are a Black boy in Philadelphia who’s acting out, there are going to be very different explanations as to why you’re acting out compared to a white boy in the wealthy suburbs,” she said.
Social worker Deana Ayers from Minneapolis said, at its worst, a system in which social workers collaborate with police or replace them in certain situations would be policing with a different name.
“If we’re trying to have social workers solve all these societal problems and be some kind of Band-Aid, then we also have to be doing the work within social work to get rid of this deep-seated, baked-in racism,” Ayers said. “Otherwise, social workers are just going to be police without guns.”
But advocates of collaboration between social workers and police point to how ingrained law enforcement is into American society as evidence of the need for acting within that framework.
“I just think it’s difficult in the current society we live in to say we can’t work with police officers when they’re so embedded in our communities right now,” NASW North Carolina executive director Valerie Arendt said. “I think social workers can and do amazing work within these systems.”
Lucas Cooper, chief of Alexandria, Kentucky's police department, said the department hired its first social worker in 2016 and now employs two alongside 17 full-time officers. While Cooper at first opposed the plan, wanting more officers instead, he now sees the program as essential and a step in the right direction in confronting flaws within policing.
“They bring a different skillset to the table," he said. "We don't know the ins and outs of that world and what social services are available. They fill in a lot of gaps.”
But Leah Jacobs, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, says there’s little research to suggest that collaboration between police and social workers is effective.
“In fact, there is some evidence saying that the opposite may be true, that when you have greater collaboration with police, it can lead to poorer outcomes and greater harm,” she said.
Instead of perpetuating what they see as punishment-based approaches, opponents of police and social workers recommend more investment in community-based intervention.
In her recent paper “Defund the Police: Moving Towards an Anti-Carceral Social Work,” Jacobs lists examples of these creative interventions, including restorative justice programs at schools that emphasize mediating conflict resolution and providing alternatives to detention and suspension.
Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color Of Change — the nation’s largest digital racial justice advocacy group — said interventions should be tailored to the needs of individual communities and, as a result, may look completely different from one community to the next.
“When we say we want to change policing, we’re not saying to just plug in other institutions like social work,” he said. “We have to reimagine policing and public safety, including social work.”
Perin acknowledges she’s cautious when it comes to initiatives that are “pet projects within the police department with social workers tagging alongside,” but sees the need for immediate practical action.
“If we could tear down policing and build something different now, we should. But that’s not the reality," Perin said. “We need to work toward breaking down the system at the same time as preventing harm now.”
Fernando is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/christinetfern.