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Social Workers Need To Step Up And Replace Cops
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 08/03/2020

Cityscape Preface

Part of a series of articles to understand society’s reactions to police shootings, use of force, and to seek solutions. I will “try” to see both sides of the issue knowing that neither will see my critiques favorably.


There is an article in Slate titled, “We Can’t Just Replace Cops With Social Workers” (see summation below).

While I have immense respect for social workers and all others involved in the helping professions, I have little appreciation for some of the author’s observations.

Cops are taking a public relations beating throughout the country as to use of force. It could be cut in half (or more) if social workers responded to mental health, domestic, homelessness, suicide and child-related problems. Cops have been calling for this for decades. Officers don’t have the training to handle many social issues.

St. Petersburg (direct quotes rearranged for brevity)

St. Petersburg police officers will no longer respond to non-violent 911 calls, such as quality-of-life complaints or mental health concerns, amid nationwide calls for budget cuts and policing changes, the agency announced.

The Florida city’s police department will instead send employees from its newly created Community Assistance Liaison division, which officials described as “a social service agency.” They will respond to 911 calls pertaining to a number of issues, including drug overdoses, disorderly intoxications, suicide crises and panhandling.

According to the press release, CAL officers will respond to the following calls:
  • Intoxicated individuals
  • Mental health crises
  • Drug overdose
  • Disorderly intoxication
  • Suicide crises
  • Homeless complaints and panhandling
  • Neighborhood disputes
  • Truancy, or disorderly minors
  • Disorderly juveniles at elementary schools
Holloway explained that the median age of police officers on the force is 25 and most don’t even have children, “but we’re asked sometimes to help someone raise their kid.”

As for mental health calls, Holloway said, the officers don’t have enough training in the area and are not experts on those types of issues, Fox News.

Sending Someone Untrained

I remembered when I responded to my first domestic violence case. There I am, all of twenty-one years, never married, standing between two people who have been together for over twenty years. Neighbors called when they heard a disturbance.

I didn’t have a clue as to how to proceed. There wasn’t any real violence; there were allegations of shoving, both stating that the other was the aggressor. After talking to them for twenty minutes, I left them with a warning that if I returned, arrests would be made. I urged them to seek counseling.

It was then I discovered that being a cop meant that I would spend the bulk of my time trying to “solve” people’s problems. Mothers would call me because their sons were being profane and threatening. Parents called because their kids were involved in drugs or had mental health problems. People would call to report disrespect; “Officer, that person needs to know they can’t say that to me.” The person staggering through the neighborhood acting strangely prompted suspicious person calls. He was simply a drunk resident trying to make his way home.

Another part of the job was responding to horrific automobile or motorcycle accidents and mentoring to friends and family members, including making death notifications.

Most of these interactions were relatively peaceful. Some, however, had the potential for violence. I worked with people under enormous personal distress and more than a couple who had drug or alcohol issues. Their explosive personalities presented problems without immediate resolutions.

I responded to a home where shots were fired. I was the first car in. On the front porch was an elderly woman with a handgun. She said that she called the police when her husband shot at her through a wall. She took his gun when he fell asleep (he was drunk).

I calmly asked her to put the gun down on the porch. She wanted to know why. I said that I believed her but it was best for everyone that she not hold the gun.

I said to myself that she was credible but I didn’t know what was really going on. Did she take the gun and shoot her husband? Was she under the influence? Was she considering suicide by cop to end years of abuse?

The point of these stories was an understanding that I simply did not have the training or education to meaningly deal with most of them. If handled improperly, many had the potential for violence. If I shot the elderly woman on the porch with a handgun (if she pointed it at me), it would be construed as another police failure to deescalate.

Bull Hockey. It would be another example of sending someone untrained to handle explosive personal crisis situations. When I asked fellow officers why we were responding to this stuff, they told me that the government was simply too cheap to do what was right by having trained crisis intervention specialists respond. “They send us because we are the only one’s available.”

Social Workers Need To Respond

Social workers need to solely respond to many if not most of the examples provided above with the exception of the woman holding a gun. Yes, social workers, on their own without a police escort, just like paramedics.

There are times when suspects want to put up a fight over an arrest for minor crimes (i.e., Eric Garner in New York for selling single cigarettes after business and community complaints). As long as officer and public safety are not compromised, social workers should be there to talk a person down and effect a peaceable arrest.

We are tired of cops expected to be all things to all people. When things go south, it’s always the officer’s fault. If you come at me with a weapon, I was trained to respond with force if de-escalation didn’t work. I had hundreds of hours of self-defense and firearms training. I had little to nothing as to crisis intervention.

Social workers need to be available twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. They should have their own vehicles and be in contact via police radios. If they feel uncomfortable with situations that have the potential for violence, they could call for backup. But they would be expected to handle the majority of calls on their own thus freeing up police for serious criminal activity.

The author of the article below opines that “We should seize the momentum of our moment and not settle for any such compromises” (i.e., working with the police). Hell, when it comes to cops, there are nothing but compromises when society demands that they be all things to all people.

No Excuses

It’s time for social workers to embrace what they were trained to do. See examples at VICE. See more on the debate in San Jose.

No excuses can be accepted. I don’t want to hear that social workers don’t like working on holidays or weekends or nights or that they are afraid or their involvement will cause family problems. I don’t care if you are concerned about racial disparities (as described in the State article) or working in miserable weather or the lack of resources or drafting social workers into an unjust system (it’s unjust because you’re sitting on the sidelines).

Paramedics are there 24-365 to respond to medical emergencies. They do 95 percent of their work without police intervention. They don’t carry guns. They don’t wear body armor. Training makes all the difference.

It’s time for social workers to step up and respond to cases they are trained to handle. It’s time for government to pay for an expansive system of trained social workers who will always be available. It’s also time for taxpayers to stop being so damned cheap and to pay what’s necessary in terms of additional taxes.


If you want to significantly reduce use of force issues in policing, then we need to use the right people to respond to crisis situations.

For much of what cops respond to, they are wasting their time and tax paid resources because they lack the training and education that social workers bring to the job.

Slate-We Can’t Just Replace Cops With Social Workers (quotes rearranged for brevity)

In the past several weeks, amid unprecedented protests responding to recent high-profile deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police, Americans’ opinion on law enforcement has profoundly shifted. Large-scale reform suddenly seems like a distinct possibility. One common refrain on social media and elsewhere suggests that we replace cops with social workers. This has largely taken the form of a broad gesture, with people intuiting that social workers, who are trained to nonviolently aid those in crisis might have a better hope of resolving problems than cops, but professional associations for social workers have joined the chorus too.

The National Association of Social Workers itself gestured toward this idea in a June 16 tweet: “@realDonaldTrump signed an executive order calling for more police training. #socialworkers will be integral: ‘This is what they have studied and worked on all their lives. We will have the best of them put in our police departments…’ ” The New York chapter of the NASW was even more direct, posting a since-deleted graphic stating, “social workers belong in police departments.” But as a social worker myself, I greet this newfound zeal for our work with some suspicion and reluctance.

Many social workers, whether case workers or child protection advocates, visit clients in their homes to offer them services to lift them out of their current situations in some manner. Just as before, the majority of social workers are white, and often the people that we serve are not. There remains an inescapable element of the outsider parachuting in to help the poor and deserving before returning to their homes. None of this is news to most contemporary social workers; these are active conversations we are having at our work, in schools, and across social media. Switching police officers with social workers would do nothing to address the fundamental disparities poisoning the criminal justice system; we would still have a mostly white professional class primarily working with people of color.

More serious proposals for reform have proposed shifting some resources from the police to social workers, so that we could answer calls for people in a mental health crisis. Many cities have tried variations on this approach, and it tends to work pretty well. Police tend to be used to fill in gaps in the public sector, but there is no clear reason why people trained to use force need respond to those in a mental health crisis, or those experiencing homelessness. Social workers and other trained professionals are much more equipped to offer targeted assistance, are much less likely to escalate the situation, and offer solutions that are much more cost effective.

Any suggestion for reform that falls short of a wholesale reinvention of what the police do and how exactly they serve us falls short. At worst, it drafts social workers into an unjust system to provide a putative stamp of approval for their actions.

Social work is in the midst of its own reform efforts; after a swift outcry to the NASW’s tweet, it has backed away from any gesture of approval. While I hope that we can contribute to solving the issue of police brutality, we are not the answer. A temptation that has been present within social work from the beginning is to offer a thin veneer of respectability to systems that must be radically reimagined. We should seize the momentum of our moment and not settle for any such compromises.

Reprinted with permission from https://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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