Time for change in American policing. On that we can agree. What role should social workers play?

Stock image of police and protesters facing off in heated encounter.

by Jana Eisenberg


Amid this American moment, with disasters both natural and man-made ongoing, and a populace violently divided, another argument in microcosm is ongoing: how and if social workers should be part of the solution regarding police reform.

The question has been reframed considering the opportunity now before our society—driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, outcry against police killing Black people, and the need, considered by a majority of Americans, to reform the police system. Yet within our profession, the debate is as complex as the number of terms there are to define the issue.

“Defund the police,” say some, “abolish” the police, “divest and reinvest” say others. Some call on the profession as a whole to come out in support of the Black Lives Matter platform, which includes the line: “We are working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.”

While the National Association of Social Workers published a position paper advocating for dismantling racist policing, in June, its CEO, Angelo McClain, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that social workers can be effective working alongside police.

His statement was countered by an open letter from UCLA social work chair Laura Abrams and Alan Detlaff, dean of the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work (signed by over 1,400 social workers) noting, ”This appears to be a rush to ally ourselves with a criminal justice system known to perpetuate destructive violence and oppression against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities…. As a profession, we have not yet reckoned with the racism and anti-Blackness that exists among ourselves and our key social welfare intuitions.”

This internal debate has been framed as “either/or” or “both/and”— while both sides believe that social workers should advocate for change, some believe that social workers should EITHER work with the police within their systems, OR not at all, meaning a rejection of the system, while the other side believes it’s possible and effective for social workers to BOTH work with the police, within the existing system AND simultaneously work to change it.

Detlaff, during Jonathan Singer’s recent National Facebook Live debate said, “I’m advocating for ‘either/or’; we’ve already had ‘both/and.’ We’ve been collaborating [with police and criminal justice systems] for decades, and it has not led to meaningful changes. We are complicit if we continue to work with violent, racist institutions.”

Taking the opposite side, Terry Mizrahi, a professor at The Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, supported “both/and.” “We can be part of the solution; social workers can make a difference. You can be both critics and collaborators. We need to be at the table, where policy is being made, and at the door, where the protest is happening. We need both. ‘Either/or’ makes people take sides. I’m not sure why we can’t do both.”

In Buffalo, a group called Western New York Agents of Change, made up of social work and mental health professionals and educators sent an open letter to the mayor flatly opposing the use of social workers “with and/or within police departments” and advocating for a fully funded mobile mental health team operating independently from the police.

“While embedding social workers into police departments and/or having social workers accompany police to mental health calls may appeal to the general public, it is ineffective, unsafe, and unproven to reduce police violence in mental health crisis situations,” they wrote.

Our dean spoke against Mayor Brown’s initiative and was quoted by an Investigative Post reporter, “When we partner with an organization we go in as guests... that’s exactly how we’d be with the police. When you’re a guest you have to live with the rules of that house.” Dean Smyth went on to note that there are too many problems with that “house,” that is, with policing. Smyth said (quoted by WGRZ), “This isn’t about bad people. This is about bad systems that need to be restructured.”

Our faculty members’ opinions reflect the diversity of theses points of view. For example:

Christopher St. Vil, assistant professor

This is a political issue. Law enforcement is a broken institution, it has been since slavery; it has roots in overseers being deputized to chase down slaves. Once police are trained to be violent and use force, they get on the job and they’re looking for action. This won’t be fixed by having social workers ride along with police. Social workers try to work with people—that won’t work with police. Social work has nothing to do with police having qualified immunity.

Portrait of Christopher St. Vil.
Portrait of Patricia Logan-Greene.

Patricia Logan-Greene, associate professor

"Using force or arrest to deal with social issues, like mental health crises, isn’t helpful, and may create more lasting harms and lasting problems. Some forms of partnership between social work and police have worked. But we can’t add a few social workers to the police and expect that to solve all the problems. The biggest things we need are hard looks at police accountability systems and structures."

Diane Elze, associate dean for academic affairs; associate professor

I support the #DefundThePolice movement. We need to redistribute millions of dollars from police departments in this country and invest in community needs, such as affordable housing, food security, decent roads and streetlights, lead abatement, clean water, affordable child care, and mobile mental health and addiction services. In this country, our policing institutions have anti-Black racism baked into their DNA. Beginning with the slave patrols, police have been used in this country to control, abuse, terrorize, and murder Black people, enforcing Jim Crow in the South, and laws and practices in the North that barred Black people from many public spaces. Most of their time is spent on traffic enforcement and non-criminal situations; research also shows that they do a poor job of solving violent crimes. We need social workers to provide mobile mental health crisis services independent from our racist police departments. And we need our local and state governments to change laws and hold police accountable for their misconduct.

Portrait of Diane Elze.
Have an opinion you want to share?

Send us an email with your opinion on this topic at sw-mosaics@buffalo.edu, and we'll share it on social  media or even add to this page.