The police department of Alexandria, Kentucky, has been hiring social workers since back in 2016.
Mike Ward, the town’s police chief, retained social workers not to make arrests but to fill in the gaps between the police officers’ skill sets and the issues they were being called upon to address.
He noticed that most of the calls that came into the station weren’t about violent crimes but about mental health crises and arguments.
Alexandria is just one example of how to think about what social workers in police departments can look like. A meme that slid into my Facebook feed earlier this summer is another.
It portrayed two police officers snickering, with the caption, “Watching the social worker try to ‘de-escalate’ the ‘unarmed’ 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound, buck-naked psycho who is covered in his own [feces] and swinging around a metal pole.”
Rather than discussing whether this meme is offensive or not, I want to talk about if it is funny, as it isn’t as funny as it could be.
First of all, it’s trying way too hard. The author needs an editor.
Secondly, I find things funnier when they’re true, and the truth is this meme provides a skewed version of police reform and how most social workers want to participate in it.
Both news pieces about progressive police departments and demeaning Facebook memes are usually by non-social workers. But social workers need to be a part of the conversation, too.
As a senior social work major, it is a conversation that could have major effects on my future career.
In their official statement on police reform, the National Association of Social Workers says that they advocate for the government to “reallocate and reinvest resources from law enforcement into mental health, living wage jobs, affordable housing and alternatives for anti-racist public safety services.”
You’ll notice that it does not say, “Abolish the police,” or “Replace social workers with police,” which is what the above meme seems to be suggesting. Rather, many social workers and social work organizations are advocating for a reframing of how we think about safety.
While police officers are trained to handle crimes, social workers help individuals, communities and institutions address the factors that influence crime rates, such as poverty and historical oppression.
However, there is one thing that the meme inadvertently gets right: Social workers are great at de-escalation.
From social workers, I’ve heard stories about necklace chokeholds, death threats and being chased down by the street by clients. I even witnessed a crisis worker handle a call with a woman whose abusive partner was yelling in the background.
All of these instances ended with the client and social worker still alive.
De-escalation is not the same thing as policing. But not all problems called into the police are police problems. The New York Times looked at 10 major police departments and found that fewer than 2% of calls that came in were about serious violent crimes.
The New York Times also found that New Orleans, Montgomery County and Sacramento police spent only 4% of their time responding to violent crime calls compared to 32 to 37% spent on responding to noncriminal calls. Police spend more time addressing traffic accidents and property issues than they do chasing down dangerous offenders.
Police training doesn’t focus on handling those kinds of situations but social work education does.
And when social workers handle their specialities, police officers are freer to handle theirs.
But this isn’t about putting social workers into the police force.
This is about who is telling the story, which is a question social workers ask a lot.
The NASW Code of Ethics has social justice as one of the six values social workers are professionally bound to uphold. Part of social justice is reframing the conversation around oppression and diversity.
Of course, social workers have historically failed to uphold social justice, such as when they participated in the removal of Indigenous children from their families to be adopted by white families in the United States during the 20th century.
But what other profession has social justice as part of their job description? That is a professional voice needed in conversation about racism and violence.
I will be graduating this May, and I am constantly reminded that my cohort of social workers will be forced to navigate the changes our police departments will make about how to police.
But I don’t want to just “navigate.” I want a say in these changes because it’s my future.
It’s all of ours.
Emmalene Rupp is a senior social work major with minors in music and writing. She is from Wooster, Ohio.