How Social Workers Like Me Can — And Do — Deescalate Dangerous Situations Every Day

I’m 5 feet tall, and the only weapons I carry are my voice and my body language.
"When a client would see that I was genuinely interested in helping, he would generally calm down."
"When a client would see that I was genuinely interested in helping, he would generally calm down."
lovelyday12 via Getty Images

After a video circulated showing a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd in May, thousands of activists and some officials across the country have advocated for defunding the police.

Officers equipped with guns and Tasers often resort to excessive force to manage unstable situations involving people with mental illness, drug addiction and developmental disabilities. Social workers and other mental health professionals are uniquely qualified to address many of these issues. Yet whenever the idea of diverting funds from police departments to other ancillary professionals is presented, the jokes and memes are plentiful.

One meme I saw showed a naked man standing on the roof of a building with his fists in the air, captioned with the words, “Can’t wait to see how the social worker handles this one.” But when I looked at that picture, I knew exactly how a social worker would handle that situation.

I’ve been a licensed clinical social worker for 25 years and have encountered innumerable incidents that required careful deescalation. I’m 5 feet tall, and the only weapons I carry are my voice and my body language.

At 23, I landed my first job as a social worker at Covenant House New York, a homeless shelter for teens. Fresh out of graduate school, I was assigned to the Rights of Passage program where I would help 18- to 21-year-old men learn life and job skills, and get an education to promote independent living.

Many of the residents were rough, really rough. They came from abusive families and foster care; they had various mental health challenges including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Some had been involved in gangs and prostitution, had spent time in juvenile detention, or had survived on the streets for years before they made it to the shelter.

With 30 residents from various backgrounds living on the same floor, many crises would arise. Residents would get into physical fights. There would be escalating tempers and accusations. It was my job to address these situations to maintain the safety of the residents and the staff.

Even as a novice, I managed to do this by remaining calm and engaging on a human-to-human level, showing respect and care for my clients, no matter how difficult their behavior. That meant that even if a client was being disrespectful or yelling in my face, I ignored that behavior and engaged him.

I would stress that I wanted to minimize any further consequences due to the disruptive behavior. At Covenant House, I would explain that I wanted to make sure he did not get discharged for fighting. When a client would see that I was genuinely interested in helping, he would generally calm down.

Then — and now — I utilized open-ended questions, asking the client to tell me more about what upset them in the moment. I empathized and validated the client’s feelings by saying something like, “I am so sorry this is happening to you. I understand why you are so upset.” Sometimes I asked the client to take a few breaths or a moment to calm down, so that I could find the best way to help in the situation.

I used the same techniques when working in foster care and while making home visits. I’m not special. That’s what social workers do in every area of the field every single day.

Social workers are adept at working with vulnerable populations and using deescalation due to years of education and supervised training. Police officers usually have not had the same level of training, but they are regularly called to resolve difficult, nonviolent situations.

This often results in death.

Kenneth French, a nonverbal man with schizophrenia, was shot and killed in a Costco after hitting an off-duty Los Angeles police officer. Eric Sopp was shot and killed in Baltimore after his mother called police to help with a potential suicide attempt. Charles Kinsey, a therapist, was shot by police with his hands in the air while trying to counsel a client with autism who had wandered away from his facility. Ricardo Hayes, an 18-year-old boy with autism, was shot and killed by police after he was seen running down the street. Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old wheelchair user with Down syndrome, was asphyxiated when mall security officers tried to restrain him for sneaking into a movie.

These are not isolated cases. Since January 2015, 22% of people shot and killed by police were known to have a mental illness. In a review of the 109 people killed by police in Maryland between 2010 and 2014, 40% appeared to have a possible medical, mental health or substance abuse issue. More than 30% of incoming calls to a police department in California were about homeless people. Data also show that police are only spending 4% of their time managing violent crime.

I believe police are essential in our society, and as a social worker I have been grateful for the assistance of many officers over the years. However, given the information on the kinds of problems police are routinely called to address, they may not have the required training to effectively deescalate a crisis situation without using force.

“Every day, there are social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and addiction specialists who successfully deescalate without violence.”

In the United States, only 30% of officers have a four-year college degree. In contrast, 100% of social workers have a bachelor’s degree and 45% have a master’s or greater. Additionally, there are various requirements for social work licensure — but all social workers must complete between 400 and 1,200 hours of an internship just to graduate. During internships, students receive a high degree of supervision to increase learning and feedback.

Furthermore, to become a licensed clinical social worker, an additional 3,000 hours of supervised post-degree professional experience is required, whereas police officers are not typically shadowed by a supervisor in the field for any amount of time.

Social workers are commanded by a code of ethics that provides core values that are central to the profession. In terms of working with potentially dangerous situations, there are two values that are particularly relevant: the dignity and worth of the person and the importance of human relationships. It is through these values that social workers learn to treat others with respect, regardless of their behavior or circumstances. Social workers use engagement techniques including empathy, nonverbal cues and a nonjudgmental perspective to deal with resistant or potentially dangerous clients.

Additionally, social workers are trained in risk assessment, safety planning and how to manage suicidal ideation. Asking open-ended questions, using a calm tone, giving choices and active listening are all vital skills needed to deescalate situations involving distressed and mentally ill people. These are the most basic skills for social workers.

Police work is often dangerous and uncertain. Situations can go from under control to threatening in moments. It is understandable that police are on edge at times. It takes training and experience to manage all of the emotions that accompany this work. Social workers learn through extensive self-examination how to ensure that personal feelings and biases do not affect the client-worker relationship.

We are trained to think, How am I feeling, what thoughts am I imposing on this situation? Being aware of feelings is incredibly difficult, and it takes years and continual practice to manage and address. This is the reason so many social workers also see a therapist.

The culture in social work is also vastly different than in the police force. Both professions encounter incredibly difficult situations. The work is hard. It brings up a lot of emotions. The difference that makes many social workers excellent in dealing with crisis situations is that we are encouraged to talk about our feelings and get help to manage them.

Social workers absolutely need the support of the police at times. But every day, there are social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and addiction specialists who successfully deescalate without violence. Reducing excessive force and unnecessary death of people who need help should be a priority for all, including the police. Diverting funds allows police to focus on the job for which they are trained.

So that meme asking how a social worker would handle a naked man on the roof? Well, I’d do what I was trained to do: I’d respectfully engage him using a calm voice and relaxed body posture showing sincere empathy. That’s how you help a vulnerable person during a crisis.

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