Social workers can assist but not replace police
Some cities successfully partner mental health caregivers with law enforcement
In June 2020, a Motel 6 manager near Olympia, Wash., was growing nervous about one hotel guest. The woman had smoked indoors, brought an unauthorized visitor into her room, and was acting erratic, as if she were on drugs. Before 2019, a 911 call would have brought police to back up the manager when he asked the guest to leave. But this time, Christopher Jones and Nate Wilson, unarmed members of Olympia’s Crisis Response Unit, drove to the hotel in their white van and knocked on the woman’s door.
Since April 2019, CRU members have responded to low-level emergency calls, working to de-escalate situations without police. The woman became upset when they explained she had to leave, but they calmly gave her options: They could talk to the manager for her and maybe get her another night there, or they could take her to request a bed at the Salvation Army shelter, where she could meet with a caseworker. The woman agreed to the second option.
Since the death of George Floyd one year ago, cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and St. Louis announced pilot programs to divert some emergency calls and funding from police departments to employ social workers. Programs that add social workers to police work have the potential to save cities money and produce better outcomes for citizens, but some experts caution that they cannot effectively replace police.
The CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Ore., started in 1989 and serves as a model for other cities. Police route calls to CAHOOTS for things like welfare checks, public assistance, and transportation. Eugene’s dispatcher sends a medic and a mental health worker to provide crisis counseling, first aid, conflict resolution, and other services when police or emergency medical assistance are not needed.
In Austin, Texas, the city’s mental health authority, Integral Care, sends counselors to mental health calls and makes them available for police to consult in escalating situations. “Instead of flashing lights, uniforms, badges and radios, having people come out in unmarked cars and plain clothes, introducing themselves by first name and saying they’re a counselor can create an environment that’s conducive to deescalating a mental health crisis,” said Integral Care practice manager Marisa Aguilar. Integral Care has sent its Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams (EMCOT) to mental health emergencies since 2014, but last year the city approved funds to hire more counselors and embed clinicians in the 911 call center.
The programs show promising results: In 2019, CAHOOTS received approximately 24,000 calls and only had to request police backup 250 times. The program has an annual budget of $2.1 million, in contrast with $90 million of the combined budgets of the police departments in the area CAHOOTS serves. A recent report from Denver’s new Support Team Assisted Response program showed that in its first six months the team responded to 748 incidents, and none led to police calls or arrests. Between mid-December and the end of March, Austin’s EMCOT has received 2,385 calls and diverted 82 percent of those calls from police. According to Aguilar, half of the calls not diverted were because the caller specifically requested police.
Amid the success, some experts caution against the idea that social workers can replace police. Christine Sarteschi, social work and criminology professor at Chatham University, and Daniel Pollack, social work professor at Yeshiva University, wrote in favor of sending police with social workers and argued the two professions should not be treated as interchangeable. “In the United States, police need and have an immense amount of power,” they said. “They can rightly or wrongly interfere with anyone’s freedom at any time. They can search, handcuff, detain, and arrest individuals. … Police enforce laws and maintain social order in ways that social workers do not.”
In December, Richard Smith, police chief in Kansas City, Mo., wrote about his department’s decision in 2017 to hire social workers. He echoed the argument that social workers can assist but not replace police. “It is irresponsible to send untrained, unarmed social workers out to deal with volatile and potentially violent individuals,” Smith wrote. “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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