Should social workers work with the police? The jury is out | News, Sports, Jobs

LANSING — While social workers and police responding to calls together have become popular in recent 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 is an attempt to formalize it once again,” Goetz said.

Law enforcement agencies across the state are taking different approaches to integrating social workers into police departments, but Goetz and other experts worry that it’s being done too hastily.

Social workers often respond with police to calls such as mental health crises or domestic situations.

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

Goetz said integrating social workers into a department can raise questions about their independence.

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

The other approach is the contracting of social workers.

The Grand Rapids Police Department has been doing this for more than a year through a program called Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), in which officers who respond with social workers receive 40 hours of de-escalation training and issues like mental health. health and autism.

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

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

sergeant. John Wittkowski is an officer trained at CIT in Grand Rapids.

He said when the program began, there was a consensus among law enforcement officials and politicians in West Michigan that more mental health resources for residents were needed. Social workers responding with agents were 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 will begin hiring social workers to serve the Grand Rapids department only.

Wittkowski said the officers who will respond with these social workers will be CIT-trained.

Although no data is yet available because it is 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 could provide the same services as others groups.

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

She said if more funds were spent on preventative measures such as housing, mental health care and employment programs, social workers would have less need to respond with the 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 — speed of deployment, burnout, and whether 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 such as the CIT program — where social workers are part of a team that responds to 911 calls involving mental health crises and other non-criminal calls.

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

This can create problems, even in fine detail like police department job descriptions, Breijak said.

“A lot of police organizations that use social workers don’t know how or where to use social workers appropriately,” he said. “So these people burn out quickly in these 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 around 30% per year, with some agencies as high as 65%.

The first – and only – Lansing Police Department social worker quit in January, saying her job had had a negative impact on her health. The department said it plans to hire a replacement and also recently hired a social work supervisor.

Peter Hochstedler, a social worker in Lansing and a member of Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity, said that while a social worker can help in an individual situation, in most cases social workers function as “copaganda.” – that is, police propaganda.

It would be “trying to change the public’s perception of the police without making a substantial change to the status quo,” he said.

In 2021, Gallup reported that 51% of Americans polled said they trusted the police, an increase from the 2020 low of 48%.

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

According to a 2021 study by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, on average, only 6.4% of calls to the police in nine US cities were related to violence.

“The police themselves have to accept that part, and more of their training and attention has to be devoted to the kinds of non-criminal cops that are often expected to come up against,” he said. .

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

“As a chapter, we believe social workers should maintain a clear and distinct separation from law enforcement by being integrated as direct employees and law enforcement agencies,” he said. .

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

“Police are not trained mental health professionals and shouldn’t be treated as such, and I don’t think they want to be treated as such,” he said. Breijak said in many cases a police officer who shows up can make things worse. “I think with many communities, especially communities of color, when a police officer shows up, the escalation can happen automatically,” he said.

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