Police and Social Workers: An Ongoing Struggle with Mental Health
By Karena McDanel
There has been increased discussion in all different kinds of communities regarding the uses and benefits of social workers and police officers partnering up together. These discussions recently started after the death of George Floyd, and have picked up more momentum since October 26, 2021 killing by police of Walter Wallace Jr., who was suffering from a mental health crisis at the time of his death.
With the increased media attention regarding the death of citizens suffering from mental health at the hands of police, one department in Alexandria, Kentucky took advantage of the resources around them and have hired a full time social worker to assist alongside the department. Since 2016, the role of social workers in this department has helped those with mental issues in the county. In one instance Cassie Hensley, a social worker for the department, had to assist a Vietnam veteran that would call 9-1-1 in the middle of the night because of his nightmares. Many communities have been asking for a response like this, most departments in the U.S do not have the budget or capability to do so at this time. In an interview, a Police Radio Communications Dispatcher in the city of Philadelphia, PA Melissa Distasio discussed the topic of social workers partnering with police and mentioned that she too has, “heard about different ideas with social workers or mental health advocates working alongside with police, through a lot of media outlets with the news and social media as well.” The news and social media is definitely a huge source that shows everyone what the community wants and what they are asking for.
Many communities want social workers and police officers to partner up together but there are others who have provided significant pushback to the idea. This article hints at very different types of viewpoints where social workers are armed to listen, heal, and learn while police officers are armed with guns, tasers, handcuffs. In a world where these two professions seem vastly different, how can society come to a point where people are less threatened by police like they would be with social workers?
Annie Byrne, a Licenced Clinical Worker at Philmont Guidance Center and Cora Services responded to this question by saying, “Police are in the helping profession, I do agree that there are bad cops and good cops, but there are also bad social workers and there are good social workers. I think it just comes down to the human nature of things. we can never tell, we can only keep working for the betterment of society. Social workers are right inside of every community, most people just don't know how to access it.”
The possibility of social workers partnering with police comes at a cost especially with regards to the overall budget spending allocated for police departments around the U.S. After the death of George Floyd and Walter Wallace, upwards of 10,600 peaceful demonstrations occurred with some activists protesting the police and calling for defunding the police. There have been varying viewpoints on this topic, but some have argued that Defunding the police would mean reducing the overall budget spending for law enforcement services while allocating these new funds to other social service resources. Others have countered this specific movement by saying that defunding the police would be wrong and removing police from communities in need will only harm these places more.
The idea that social workers and police officers partnering together has gained traction certainly swept the nation, but the next big question has to be with regard to the safety of all parties and the cost at which it would take to make this happen. If there was a 9-1-1 call for a mental illness situation, calling social workers or mental health experts would be a great source to be there to help.