Cries of “defund the police” and “invest in Black communities” have been heard throughout the nation, and most members of the Minneapolis City Council announced plans to defund that city’s police department over the weekend.
Many cities are following suit. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti cut $150 million — a relatively small amount — from the L.A. Police Department’s whopping $1.86 billion budget. The New York City Council is calling for a $1 billion cut to that city’s astronomical $6 billion police department budget.
But many advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement argue that this is not enough and that the goal is to abolish the police completely.
This raises the question of who would take their place. Activists have called for expanding initiatives to have mental health professionals and social workers respond to emergency calls instead of the police. For those who are completely oblivious to the public mental health system, this might sound like a radical concept.
But it’s actually not, given that social workers such as me are already doing this kind of work out in the field. We are on the front lines dealing with the homeless population, people suffering from substance abuse, clients who are predisposed to violence because of trauma histories, adolescents and young adults trapped in the criminal justice system, domestic violence victims and perpetrators, veterans with PTSD and more. These vulnerable people are arguably perceived as the most dangerous individuals in America – and social workers do this all without guns.
I only recently began my career as a social worker, but in the past two years, I’ve already worked with some of Los Angeles County’s most marginalized and disadvantaged folks of all ages, ethnicities and races.
In the first year of my field internship for my master’s degree program, I worked in the field and conducted home visits for homebound clients such as seniors and those who are physically or mentally disabled. I visited them in their homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods and investigated abuse allegations from Adult Protective Services by assessing them for signs of abuse and determining the safety of their environment.
I helped them access resources such as food stamps, utilities assistance, rent assistance, employment, housing, mental health help – basically anything they needed to make their difficult lives just a little more comfortable.
I met my homeless clients on the streets or in coffee shops to help link them with housing and resources.
In California, social workers need 1,000 clinical field internship hours in order to graduate from a two-year master’s program. Then they need to complete 3,000 supervised clinical hours over the course of 104 weeks in order to test for their license.
Barbers, cosmetologists, interior designers, refrigeration technicians, electrical sign specialists and manicurists all require more hours of training than the police, according to CNN.
In my role as a social worker, I’ve done things such as pick up and deliver furniture, clothes and medical supplies to homebound clients; drive clients to necessary appointments; mediate conflict among family members; diagnose and treat clients for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, gender dysphoria or disruptive behavior; provide individual and family psychotherapy in English and Korean; develop individualized education plans with school administration; and collaborate with an interdisciplinary team of medical professionals, mental health practitioners, law enforcement, lawyers, court officials, schools and community resources.
Social workers are already using “smart policing” techniques and providing preventive evidence-based interventions in marginalized communities – and all this with a fraction of the budget of the New York Police Department. We conduct regular home visits for homebound or high-needs clients to ensure they have the resources and services they need to survive and become contributing members of society.
The goal is to address the underlying cause of crime and violence before it becomes a bigger issue. This kind of evidence-based policing combines the science of controlling crime and disorder with the principles of community policing and problem-solving. Based on a social worker’s job description, we’re basically community police officers without guns.
But what if you find yourself in a dangerous situation and fear for your safety? Wouldn’t you want to call the cops? If the person that I’m fearing has a weapon, sure, I would want to call the cops. But if he’s unarmed (as were George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Eric Garner ― the list goes on), you’d be surprised at how many crises can be de-escalated without the use of guns or violence.
When it comes to crisis intervention, social workers generally follow the seven-stage crisis intervention model: Plan and conduct a thorough bio-psycho-social and lethality/imminent danger assessment; make psychological contact and rapidly establish a collaborative relationship; identify the major problems, including crisis precipitants; encourage an exploration of feelings and emotions; generate and explore alternatives and new coping strategies; restore functioning through the implementation of an action plan; and plan follow-up and booster sessions. It is crucial to note that some individuals in crisis are often making one last heroic effort to seek help and may, therefore, be highly motivated to try something different.
I had to de-escalate a crisis situation in my first few months as an intern at a community mental health agency. My client was erratic, emotionally unstable and expressed suicidal and homicidal ideation. I was scared, but I didn’t have to call the police. Instead, my supervisor came for back-up, and we calmly helped my client come to the realization that it would be in the client’s and family’s best interests if my client were to go to the hospital that night. My client ended up getting the medication that they needed at the hospital and has been doing great ever since.
In addition, I have colleagues who have experienced physical altercations out in the field, such as being placed in a brief chokehold by a homeless person on substances. I know applied behavior analyst therapists who have grown accustomed to getting objects thrown at them and getting bit by their young autistic clients. CBS ranks social work as No. 20 on its list of the top 20 deadliest jobs in America.
Despite the daily dangers of the job and the heavy investment in our education and training, social workers do all of this work for significantly less pay than police. That’s because everyone knows you don’t go into social work to make money.
Many of us come from communities of low-income Black, indigenous or people of color and grew up experiencing hardships ourselves. One thing I’ve consistently noticed about my peers and colleagues is that, at the end of the day, our motivation for entering this field boils down to one common desire: We want to help people.
Social workers are the ones out in the field providing services for the increasing homeless population in Los Angeles County. Social workers connect homeless individuals to resources and help them secure housing, mental health services, employment, substance abuse counseling and much more. Police essentially shuttle the homeless from the streets into hospitals and jails and back onto the streets again.
According to the numbers, social workers cause fewer deaths than cops, are less likely to exacerbate crisis situations with violence and do all of this work for way less pay than police.
I’m an immigrant, and a few years ago I officially got naturalized. I raised my right hand and swore an oath that “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” I’ve been living and breathing this oath in my daily work as a social worker, advocating for America’s most vulnerable and neglected souls.
But the Constitution and laws of this country were written by old white men, and that’s just not what this country is made up of anymore. In a nation as big and diverse as the United States, we need fewer angry men with guns and more BIPOC out in the community as community police, social workers, teachers, health care professionals and leaders.
We need to change the way we think about mental health so that instead of just seeing a “crazy person” out on the street, we see a fellow American reaching out for help.
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