Affirming the Call for Social Work to Fully Support Defunding the Police

The murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, at the same time that a deadly pandemic is exposing the failings of our systems of care, has created a unique moment for the profession of social work to reflect on its relationship with institutions that perpetuate racism. Over the past month, social work has been both called on as a possible solution to violent policing, and called out for our profession’s complicity with racist state systems of control and coercion. This is not surprising, given that social work has historically operated as both an instrument of social change and social control.

In an open letter claiming to represent the organization’s membership, NASW CEO Angelo McClain suggested that, “social workers will play a vital role in helping law enforcement better serve their communities.” We think this approach is wrong. A response letter penned by two of the undersigned social work scholars and signed by 1,140 social workers rejects the idea of continued social work investment in police reform due to its proven lack of effectiveness, contradiction with our core social work values, and the irrefutable legacy of racist police violence.

This letter was followed up with yet another response, by a different group, titled It’s Neither Cooperate Nor Condemn — It’s “Both/And.” The “both/and’’ frame is typically used to challenge reductionist, dichotomous thinking. At times, this perspective can be quite useful. In our view, however, we cannot “both condemn and cooperate.” This is not a “both/and” moment because cooperating with a racist institution equates to upholding that institution. For social work, this is a time to join forces with communities calling for divestment from police and reinvestment in community-based systems of accountability and wellness. We believe it is time for the social work profession, including schools of social work and our professional associations, to take a firm stance on our relationship with policing.

Background

Money, time, and political will are all finite resources, so there is an opportunity cost when we support institutions that do harm. In 2017, state and local governments across the U.S. spent $115 billion on police. Given the racist, lethal outcomes of this institution, why expand its resources through social work partnerships? Each dollar spent on community policing, implicit bias training, diversity initiatives, and other reforms with poor evidence of effectiveness is a dollar that could be spent developing community safety solutions that actually work. We do, in fact, need to “take away from one in order to gain in another.”

After decades of repeated attempts at reform, one constant remains: The police continue to fail our society and harm the most marginalized among us, particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA people, who disproportionately experience violence from officers. Police kill nearly 1,000 people each year and assault, harass, and surveil hundreds of thousands more, while fewer than half of crimes are reported, and fewer than half of those are solved.The police do not keep the people we serve safe.

Perhaps more importantly, continuing to invest in an institution predicated on anti-Blackness contributes to maintaining White supremacy. The profession of social work has long been complicit in policing communities of color without acknowledging the inherent racism in its design. For too long, social workers have enabled the police to harm others, not only through direct collaborations with law enforcement, but also through collaborations with police in child protective services, schools, and others. We must acknowledge that we, as social workers, have an incentive to maintain the status quo, which perpetuates our existence as a profession.

It is clear that we are at a pivotal decision point as a profession: Social work can either continue to invest in and collaborate with police OR we can affirm that Black Lives Matter. The profession of social work should not merely be fighting for fewer people to be put in cages or for reduced militarization. Military-grade gear did not kill George Floyd; the knee of an officer did. The logic of policing cannot be “improved” — it needs to be replaced with completely new strategies that foreground care and connection.

Ultimately, calls to defund the police are part of an abolitionist imagination that is focused on building new systems of care and investing in institutions that support people living and thriving. Let us begin to imagine new, meaningful ways that social work can partner with communities in this work. For example, social workers can champion evidence-based housing first initiatives, build mutual aid networks, facilitate community accountability processes, and contribute to an infinite number of strategies that promote community safety and well-being. Several large cities, including Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and San Francisco are in fact beginning to divest from policing and reinvesting in alternative crisis response. School districts across the nation are ending contracts with local police. To some people these ideas are frightening, but to others who have been fighting to center these ideas for decades, divestment is critical for community survival. As a profession dedicated to enhancing the well-being of all people, we ought to publicly support and engage in these movements.

This is a historic time for Black liberation in the U.S. More people than ever, of all races, ethnicities, and ages, are coming together to demand a reconceptualization of public safety. The possibilities are tremendous and exciting. We believe that the social work profession has an important role in this moment, and that role involves severing ties with police in order to bolster alternative systems of care. Continuing to work to shore up racist systems is a distraction from the real need: to build new systems of public safety that work for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities just as they “work” for the White middle class.

Calls for Action

In the Open Letter to NASW discussed above, Alan Dettlaff and Laura Abrams called upon NASW to respond to five critical actions. As the 1,140 social workers who signed on in support of the letter await a response from NASW, we feel moved to extend this invitation to action to other social work professional organizations, allied organizations, and schools of social work. These actions include the following:

  1. Publicly endorse the Black Lives Matter Petition to defund the police and reinvest in “our communities.”
  2. Craft a position statement on the divestment and reinvestment of law enforcement budgets that excludes expansion of law enforcement and instead supports community-driven alternatives to public safety.
  3. Call for public comment from the members of NASW and allied organizations to add a racial justice ethic to current code.
  4. Take seriously calls for abolition in our profession by hosting a public conversation with those who are working to transform harmful institutions (e.g. child welfare and policing).
  5. Recognize social work’s historical role in perpetuating anti-Blackness and regulating the lives of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous families.

We recognize that other professional organizations and student groups are also encouraging anti-racist actions for the profession. In concert with these statements, we offer the following action steps for students, faculty, field liaisons/instructors, and administrators.

If you are a student, you can:

  • Identify the degree to which your school cooperates with the police in regards to field placements, training, or other agreements. If you learn they are involved in helping to support the police, join together with other students to ask the administration to cease this activity.
  • Contact CSWE and ask that they revise the Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) to explicitly include anti-racism content.

If you are a faculty member, you can:

  • Learn more about and teach about the harms that policing and law enforcement have caused Black people and other marginalized communities.
  • Encourage your students to think critically about how social work can be of benefit to marginalized communities without supporting the police.

If you are a field liaison/instructor, you can:

  • Talk to students about how your role does and does not engage with the police.
  • Respect the wishes of students who wish not to engage in practice that supports the role of the police.

If you are a dean, director, chair, or program coordinator, you can:

  • Discontinue field placements in programs that uphold the Prison Industrial Complex — such as probation offices, jails, and others.
  • Support your faculty in creating events or other learning opportunities to discuss how social work can move forward as a profession outside the current criminal legal system.

The profession of social work has been complicit for too long. It is time for us to fully align ourselves with racial justice. This means rejecting a both/and stance and standing with the Black Lives Matter movement. We invite you to join us in taking these action steps, publicly sharing your commitment to anti-racism and holding each other accountable, and proposing additional ways that our profession can live our values.

Laura S. Abrams, University of California, Los Angeles

Alan J. Dettlaff, University of Houston

Darcey Merritt, New York University

Jennifer Mosley, University of Chicago

Lenna Nepomnyaschy, Rutgers University

Sophia P. Sarantakos, University of Denver

Shannon Sliva, University of Denver

Dean and Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work