While the general public doesn’t usually think of social workers and police officers in the same breath, the reality is they often end up working with the same vulnerable clients. Many people call 911 or the police as first responders when any need arises, whether or not it’s related to crime. Police end up spending the the majority of their days working with non-criminal situations, such as mental health or medical emergencies or minor traffic infractions.
To improve their response to these community needs, a handful of city police office departments are starting to partner with social work departments. One city that recently piloted a successful partnership is St. Paul, MN, where some social workers are joining officers in the field to improve response to mental health calls.
We’d love to see cities continue to encourage strong relationship development between social workers and the police department. Social workers are important in policing for the following reasons:
Using appropriate first responder interventions
Social workers are trained to help clients in crisis in a variety of situations. Many individuals utilizing first responder services experience a mental health crisis, either because of a chronic mental illness or the stress of a difficult situation. Having a social worker on the scene ensures clients will receive the immediate care they need under stress. A social worker can also use their case management services to make an immediate referral on the scene.
Developing community trust
Research shows that many community members don’t trust police officers. The general public often associates the police with punitive practices rather than providing community support, so having a police responder as their only first responder might increase their stress. Having a social worker on hand as well provides an additional support at the scene who the people on the scene are less likely to associate with disciplinary action. The social worker’s presence can help relax community members and help them stay calm in stressful situations.
Educating police officers
Unlike social workers, police officers primarily get trained to handle situations related to criminal activity. This means that many want to help out in situations that are more community oriented but lack the foundational education necessary. Social workers are very well trained in supporting and advocating for vulnerable people and are well-equipped to give police officers the tools to properly facilitate these situations. They can provide this kind of help in the field or through more formal educational seminars.
Creating partnerships and alliances
With the development of strong relationships, social workers and the police have the potential to develop strong networks that help those in need. In their case management role, social workers will have advanced knowledge of resources that can help individuals in crisis, while police can assist social workers when matters of criminal justice arise. Both professions will also learn when it’s appropriate to refer clients to each other.
Support for police officers themselves
With the stressful nature of their job, police officers are at increased risk for developing mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Social workers are trained to notice presenting mental health symptoms and understand the importance of self-care. If they see potentially concerning markers in a police officer colleague, they can help him or her get a referral to appropriate treatment.
As a social work practitioner or student, you can encourage your agency, school, and city government to continue to develop initiatives that encourage positive relationships between social workers and the local police departments. Working together, officers and social workers can work to create stronger and healthier communities.