An Open Letter to NASW and Allied Organizations on Social Work’s Relationship with Law Enforcement

Update: Thank you to everyone who signed on to this letter. We received 1,140 signatures and submitted these to NASW on June 22, 2020.

As social workers, we are encouraged by the recent attention our profession has received in the press and in public conversation. This publicity has largely acknowledged social work’s unique knowledge, values, and skills that may be more effective in responding to many issues that police officers are not trained to handle, including homelessness, mental health concerns, domestic violence, and others. Social workers have much to contribute to bettering our society, and we are glad to be brought into the national conversation on policing, community safety, and the end of lethal use of force against Black Americans.

That said, we are also very concerned by recent public statements put forth by our governing organizations that have embraced the idea of social workers joining with law enforcement, or in some cases replacing law enforcement, as a means of addressing and remedying the racism and racial violence that law enforcement has perpetuated. This appears to be a rush to ally ourselves with a criminal justice system that is 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 institutions, including public benefits and child welfare. We absolutely cannot situate ourselves as the magic ingredient to eradicating racism in law enforcement — an institution directly tied to the legacy of American slavery — if we cannot dismantle racism within our own systems of care.

Moreover, we have yet to see our social work leaders take a bold stance on police divestment. As the murders of Black people at the hands of law enforcement continue despite decades of “well intentioned” reform, we continue to see little to no accountability in many of these cases. As an evidence-based profession, we need to acknowledge that there is no evidence that reform strategies such as “bias training” can eliminate lethal use of force against Black people or reduce racial disparities at every level of the carceral system. Rather than immediately endorsing President Trump’s executive order, we need to take a step back, examine our existing relationships with law enforcement and with the Black community, and seriously consider which relationships we want to prioritize as a profession and how we will go about doing so.

Social work has been historically defunded and devalued, and we are grateful for this opportunity for recognition. However, the endorsement of Trump’s executive order is not the right direction for our profession. Rather, we believe the best use of our collective power is to join with the voices of those who are calling for divestment from law enforcement and reallocation of those funds to support families and communities, which includes social services, but also grassroots efforts to fight poverty, hunger, lack of affordable housing, and police violence.

As such, we encourage our leadership to do the following:

  1. Publicly endorse the national Black Lives Matter Petition to defund the police and reinvest “in our communities and the resources to ensure Black people not only survive, but thrive.”
  2. Craft a position statement on the divestment and reinvestment of law enforcement budgets that excludes the expansion of law enforcement and instead supports community-driven alternatives to public safety.
  3. Call for public comment among the members of NASW and allied organizations to add a racial justice ethic to our current code. Cultural competency will not address anti-Blackness and institutional racism, and it is time to change course.
  4. Take seriously calls for abolition in our profession by hosting a public conversation with those who are working to completely transform harmful institutions, such as child welfare and policing.
  5. Recognize social work’s historical role in perpetuating anti-Blackness and regulating the lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous families, such that any further expansion of our role in policing will compromise our already tenuous relationship with these communities.

Our mission is one of fighting for social justice and our message needs to be loud and clear. This is our moment to take a bold stance and to align ourselves with those who have called for much needed change. During this time in history where our profession is receiving national attention, we need to use that attention by aligning with those who are on the side of racial justice.

Laura S. Abrams, PhD, Chair & Professor, UCLA Luskin Social Welfare

Alan J. Dettlaff, PhD, Dean & Professor, University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work

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