Friday, December 18, 2020

Social workers belong in law enforcement but cannot replace officers

In the last three weeks, two social workers have been killed in the line of duty. On Nov. 30, a man in Seattle stabbed his caseworker, Kristin Benson, to death. On Dec. 2, a man in Melbourne, Florida, shot and killed Travis Knight, a social worker with whom the suspect had worked at a mental health treatment facility. This also happened to a Kansas City-area social worker in 2004. A 17-year-old in Johnson County attacked his mental health social worker, Teri Zenner, with a knife and chainsaw when she did a home visit in 2004. She died at the scene.

Social work is a dangerous profession. A 2017 CBS News article named it the 20th most deadly job in America, with 1 death per 100,000. (Police and firefighters ranked at No. 15, with 6.2 deaths per 100,000.) But social work also is a very important profession. So much so that we brought them onto the police department to be assigned to work alongside police officers beginning in late 2017. As far as I know, we were the first police department in the United States to employ full-time social workers who work from officer referrals. Before that, our CIT officers were borrowing mental health social workers to come along on calls with them whenever they could.

Social work absolutely has a place in law enforcement, but it cannot replace law enforcement, as many people have demanded this year. People who are in mental health or substance abuse crisis are not stable. They’re not always dangerous, but they can be. The criminal justice system is not the way to treat people with mental illness, but it does work to ensure people’s safety.

An example one of our social workers cites is when she got called along with officers to a woman wearing only a sundress on a freezing January day, walking along a sidewalk with children who also were not dressed appropriately for the weather. That sounds like the perfect call for a social worker, right? With officers nearby, our social worker approached the woman. She talked to the woman and her children, and found out they had been walking in the cold for more than 18 hours non-stop. A toddler in a stroller and none of the other children nor the woman had eaten or drank for that time. The woman was on PCP. After initially talking peacefully to our social worker, the woman became violent, which is not uncommon for users of that drug. Thankfully, the officers were there to step in to stop the woman and protect the social worker and the woman’s own children. The social worker, in turn, was able to get resources for the family immediately.

Many issues come to the attention of police that no amount of enforcement will solve. Social workers have the training, time and resources to address issues police can’t. Our social workers helped us address issues with unruly youth on the Country Club Plaza – an issue we’d tried for years to enforce our way out of with limited success. They’ve gotten resources for families involved in feuds that could have escalated into violence, but with their intervention, did not. They’ve helped individuals contemplating suicide get mental health treatment. They’ve gotten housing for the homeless. Desperate people do desperate things, and our social service workers do an amazing job helping reduce that desperation and the criminal acts that might arise from it.

The reason it works so well is that the police and social workers work together. With police by their sides, the social workers have the luxury of knowing they can safely assist unstable individuals with resources to bring them to stability. And with social workers by their sides, police have the resources to solve what once were hopeless situations. Social workers and cops work better together.

Imagine what would have happened to our social worker after the mother on PCP turned violent. The social worker likely would have been attacked, injured or worse. The mother also presented a safety threat to her own children. Having the police there protected everyone. The social worker, in turn, helped police get care and assistance for the children right away.

I believe this law enforcement-social work partnership is the future of policing in America, and I’m glad we were at the forefront. It has led to very desirable outcomes in Kansas City, and not a single social worker has been injured. It is irresponsible to send untrained, unarmed social workers out to deal with volatile and potentially violent individuals. No call is ever “routine.” But it makes a world of sense to put their specialized training to work alongside law enforcement so they can stay safe while effecting the kind of change police cannot.

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