SOCIAL WORK, POLICING AND RACE

Marc HerstandThe recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha preceded by the murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry and many other African-Americans by police or vigilante groups are finally focusing the nation’s attention on the need to revisit and rethink policing in our country. It has also focused attention on institutional racism faced by communities of color with police departments, health care, education, criminal justice and every other institution in our society.  The role of social work has been mentioned as an alternative or supplement to police intervention when issues of mental health, homelessness, substance abuse or other social service needs are present.

The shooting of Jacob Blake took place while I was on vacation, and I was very appreciative of the excellent letter our President, Dawn Shelton-Williams, sent to our Milwaukee and Racine/Kenosha members and of her most eloquent President’s column on this issue, found in our September newsletter.

On a national, state and local level, you hear widely different courses of action proposed, from clamping down with heavy force on protesters and those who vandalize, to reenvisioning policing, including setting up separate agencies to handle mental health and social services crisis to proposals to abolish and defund police departments.  There are small groups of social workers (mostly not NASW members) who are demanding that NASW stop all involvement with police departments and support the defund and abolish movement.  And there are social workers who believe NASW- WI’s statement on the shooting of George Floyd was unfair to police.

Social workers are found in every institution of our society-health care, mental health, child welfare, social services, and criminal justice, including police departments.  As mentioned above, in most, if not all these institutions, people of color have faced and still currently face racist and unequal treatment.  If NASW were to argue that social workers should not work in any institution with a history of institutional racism, there may not be hardly anywhere for them to work in our society.  However, guided by our Code of Ethics, we have an obligation to work for change in our agencies and not allow our agencies’ “…policies, procedures, regulations or administrative orders to interfere with their ethical practice of social work.” “Our ethical practice of social work includes the promotion of policies that safeguard the rights and confirm equity and social justice for all people” (NASW Code of Ethics, 2017)

In terms of social work and policing, there are social workers who work in police departments, and as part of their duties, provide training to police officers and go out with police on visits.  There are other social workers who work at agencies that collaborate with police departments on visits and cases.  And of course, there are social workers who call police to help out in potentially very dangerous situations.  For those social workers working in police departments, or for that matter, in any other institution, there can be ethical issues if the social worker finds her/himself enabling racist, discriminatory or unethical behavior. Over the years I have spoken with some courageous members who have served as “whistle-blowers” for their agency’s unethical behavior

Social workers are trained to do thorough assessments, handle crisis intervention, make proper referrals and develop new resources for clients.  They are much better equipped than police officers to handle crisis calls in areas of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness and other areas.  As can be seen in the policy statement approved by our legislative/social policy committee, we would support shifting responsibility for non-violent community issues from police departments to social workers and other mental health professionals. 

As I have previously written, most Caucasian individuals have little or no understanding of the racial trauma faced by people of color in our country and the regular indignities they face as they go about their daily lives.  It is only when reported in the press and studies that many of us have some vague understanding that things are not all right for non-white members of our society.  Ask any African-American man how many times he has been stopped “driving while black” and you will understand how difficult life is for African-American men and other men of color in our country.  Ask any person of color, male or female, if they have ever been racial profiled, followed around in stores, or experienced micro (or major) aggressions and you will get the same information.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, recent events have brought institutional racism clearly to the forefront on the issue of policing.  The current nation’s attention on this issue does provide some window of opportunity for change and we will be working to support Governor Evers and Lieutenant Governor Barnes’ proposals on policing.  We are also going to consider including at least one issue in our 2021 advocacy/lobby day on the topic of racial equity and/or policing.  

As you will see in the article on our Diversity Task Force, we are also planning many new initiatives as a chapter to support students and social workers of color, promote understanding of the issue of racism in our society and, in general, working towards building an anti-racist chapter, profession and society.

Aside from the activities we can do as a chapter and as social workers to promote racial equity, changes on a governmental level will necessitate the election of public officials who also support these goals.  The current Republican leadership of the Wisconsin State Senate and State Assembly has refused to convene a special session to consider the police reform proposals of Governor Evers and Lieutenant Governor Barnes.  It is unlikely that any package of bills developed by the Republican’s special study committee will have the same impact as those promoted by our Governor.  Similarly, on a national level, neither our President nor the Republican majority in the United States Senate seem to be open to police and racial equity reform proposals that we support.  This November, we need to elect public officials at a state and national level who will support these proposals and help turn the tide so that all the institutions in our state and country treat people of color in a fair and equitable manner. 

By Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW