Opinion: Police should partner with social workers

Stephanie Chang and Algeria Wilson

The tragic and unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many Black and Brown Americans by police officers has led our nation to a moment where we must act now to make real change happen.

That means reimagining how we respond to crime and the role of law enforcement in our communities so that we can better address problems and prevent crime. This can start with social work and police partnerships.

Marchers take to the streets in Detroit to protest police brutality.

Police — especially in major cities, like Detroit — have been tasked with so much that their response does not actually change the underlying problems that lead to 911 calls. Right now, our officers are responding to crises ranging from drug overdoses to homelessness, mental health concerns, and more.

What if you could instead dial a crisis phone line to prevent a friend’s drug overdose or respond to a minor offense caused by a mental health crisis? Or get help in a domestic violence incident or a situation with a person experiencing homelessness?

Social workers specialize in addressing the root of these problems. In fact, social workers are well-suited to de-escalate a situation and prevent our community members (and law enforcement) from getting shot, choked, or killed, because of their training and social justice mindset, which understands that inadequate safety measures create consequences for individuals, families and communities.

Social workers also use a person-in-environment framework for assessment, and their code of ethics require cultural competence. They understand that each person has a different set of experiences in society based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and more. In short, if partnered with police agencies, social workers can help restore trust and safety in our communities.

Building this collaboration would allow officers to lean on social workers in partner agencies for assistance on cases where there are deeper problems that led to an incident. Social workers could follow up with individuals and families and see what other services they need, preventing future problems. They could also work with police officers to help them process the trauma of their work.

If we invested the prison and jail savings from criminal justice reforms into social work and community interventions, we could solve more problems. We could provide low-interest loans to small businesses hiring people coming back from prison and rebuilding communities post-COVID-19. We could direct this money to community agencies providing youth education, gang intervention, workforce development, and neighborhood revitalization to reduce crime.

These aren’t brand new ideas. The Lansing Police Department was the first in the state to hire social workers to assist with homelessness, mental health and addiction. The Detroit Police Department has social workers for domestic violence victims, and the Washtenaw County Sheriff has social workers to assist individuals returning home from prison.

Michigan state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit

We also have a resource right in our backyard: Wayne State University is partnering with law enforcement around Michigan to build crisis intervention teams. Cities like Memphis, Tenn., and Chapel Hill, N.C., also have innovative social worker and police partnerships for the betterment of the community.

This model of social work and police partnerships will take funding, coordination and reinventing how our systems work. The result can be fewer police encounters that lead to excessive use of force or death, more people who get the services and treatment they need, and stronger, thriving neighborhoods. If we invest prison and jail savings from criminal justice reforms into social work and community interventions to combat problems in the community, we would be working in a more holistic manner than the current system allows.

Our communities need and deserve this change, so let’s make it happen.

Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, is the state senator for District 1, and Algeria Wilson is the director of public policy for the National Association of Social Workers — Michigan Chapter.