Should social workers work with police? Jury’s out

Across the state, law enforcement departments take varying approaches to integrating social workers into policing.

LANSING — While social workers and police officers responding together to calls has become popular in the past few years, the practice has been going on since the 1920s, said Barry Goetz, a sociology professor at Western Michigan University.

“I think it’s a good idea that there’s an attempt to kind of formalize it once again,” Goetz said.

Across the state, law enforcement departments take varying approaches to integrating social workers into policing, but Goetz and other experts express concerns that it’s being done too hastily.

Social workers often respond along with police officers on calls like mental health crises or domestic situations.

Some police departments, like Lansing’s, hire social workers themselves, while others contract for services through a company.

Goetz said embedding social workers in a department can raise questions about their independence.

“It does concern me that unless there’s a critical mass, social workers may tend to defer to the interests of law enforcement,” Goetz said.

The other approach is contracting for social workers.

The Grand Rapids Police Department has been doing that for over a year as part of a program called Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), in which the officers who respond with the social workers have received 40 hours of training on de-escalation and issues like mental health and autism.

The CIT program is intended to help officers on calls involving mental health crises, which make up at least 20% of police calls, according to the American Psychological Association.

Goetz said CIT programs are the better option because the training that officers receive can help them when social workers aren’t available.

Sgt. John Wittkowski is a CIT-trained officer in Grand Rapids.

He said when the program began, there was a consensus among West Michigan law enforcement officials and politicians about the need for more mental health resources for residents. Social workers responding with officers was seen as the best option for those who need immediate attention.

The program serves all of Kent County, including Grand Rapids. In March, Grand Rapids started contracting social workers to solely serve the Grand Rapids department.

Wittkowski said officers who respond with these social workers are CIT-trained.

While no data is available yet because it’s a pilot program, Wittkowski said the program has been beneficial.

LaDonna Norman, who founded Together We Are Safe, a community advocacy organization in Grand Rapids that encourages residents to find alternatives to calling the police, said social workers might provide the same services as other groups.

“We don’t need a bunch of people duplicating resources,” she said.

She said if more funding went into prevention measures like housing, mental health care and employment programs, then there would be less need for social workers to respond with police.

“It’s a lack of support and a lack of resources that creates some of the mental illness,” she said.

Social workers have three concerns about these programs –– rollout speed, burnout and if it’s even an effective solution, according to Duane Breijak, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

He said the national organization endorses models like the CIT program –– where social workers are part of a team that responds to 911 calls involving mental health crises and other non-crime calls.

But he said his concern is that such programs are implemented too quickly and without consultation with social work organizations.

That can create problems, even down to the smallest details like police department job descriptions, Breijak said.

“Many of the police organizations that are bringing in social workers do not know how or where to utilize social workers appropriately,” he said. “Then these people are burning out quickly in those positions.”

Social workers already have a high turnover rate, according to Casey Family Programs, a foundation focused on foster care and child welfare. The national average turnover rate is approximately 30% annually, with some agencies as high as 65%.

The Lansing Police Department’s first –– and only –– social worker resigned in January, saying the job negatively impacted her health. The department said it planned to hire a replacement and also recently hired a social work supervisor.

Peter Hochstedler, a social worker in Lansing and a member of the organization Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity, said that while a social worker may help in an individual situation, in most instances social workers function as “copaganda” — meaning cop propaganda.

That would be “trying to change the public’s perception of police without any substantive change to the status quo,” he said.

In 2021, Gallup reported that 51% of Americans surveyed say they trust the police, an increase from the 2020 low of 48%.

Goetz said that to make substantive changes in policing, the public needs to realize that most of what the police do is not crime control.

According to a 2021 study by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, an average of only 6.4% of calls to police from nine U.S. cities were violence related.

“The police themselves have to accept that part, and much more of their training and attention has to go toward those kinds of non-crimes cops are often expected to deal with,” he said.

Breijak said the national association endorses models like the CIT program where social workers are part of a team of responders.

“We as a chapter believe that social workers should maintain a clear and separate separation from law enforcement by being embedded as direct employees and law enforcement agencies,” he said. 

But, he also said in some instances, police are not needed at all because crisis hotlines and resources already exist. He said part of the solution is raising awareness that these resources already exist and that police are not always the answer.

“Police are not trained mental health professionals and should not be treated as such, and I don’t think they want to be treated as such,” he said.

Breijak said that in many instances, a police officer showing up may make things worse.

“I think with a lot of communities, especially communities of color, when a police officer shows up, escalation may just automatically happen,” he said.

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