'A Need For A Stronger Partnership': A Social Worker's Perspective On Police Reform

Published: Thursday, June 25, 2020 - 1:50pm
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LAUREN GILGER: In many cities across the nation, some are asking for a different approach to policing. In a new op-ed, James Herbert Williams argues that police could learn something from his profession — social work — for reform. It is written by James Herbert Williams, director of ASU's School of Social Work, alongside Jon B. Gould, who directs the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice there. I spoke with Williams more about it and we began with the premise they lay out in the piece: that a lot of police work is essentially social work.

JAMES HERBERT WILLIAMS: Given the current job of police officers, that they interact with a lot of situations that are really more social services or human services in true nature. Law enforcement as social work, and many other service providers today, interact across spectrums of things as involved in people's lives. So it's not just law enforcement in the way that we normally think about it, right? There's issues of mental health, there's issues of domestic violence, homelessness, elderly people who are isolated and need assistance. Many of these things don't always require a law enforcement, but yet and still, that is the person that gets called first. There's a real overlap between the types of things a social worker does and the types of activities that police officers are engaged in.

GILGER: So are you advocating for police to sort of hire social workers and work with them in a way in which social workers would be on the front lines, so to speak? Or, is this sort of an a, an adopting the tools that social workers use for police?

WILLIAMS: So, I've always thought that, as these types of interactions starts to merge across the way that we interact in communities, that there's really a need for people to have a knowledge around different aspects of what it's like to work in communities. Now, the challenge with that many times is that, for most people, how do you expand your job, right? You're just basically already doing the things that you'd need to be doing and just adequate hours to do those. How do you expand your knowledge in those particular areas that will allow you to come at these types of situations, maybe from a different perspective? Now, I'm also, have to be very respectful that there are certain things about police jobs, as well as about social workers' jobs, that are a very, very dangerous. How do we acknowledge the danger of these jobs? But how do we also acknowledge the humanity of these jobs?

GILGER: So you point out, I want to also talk about sort of some of the context that goes into this, that a social worker might bring into a situation. You point out the police need to learn about the history of racial oppression in policing and why some people distrust the criminal justice system. How do you think that would change their approach?

WILLIAMS: Well, and also, I don't want to give my professional pass on this when it comes to the issues around sort of the systematic issues in our society that promotes these types of situations, right? That their work that we need to, that law enforcement officers need to achieve, there's also work that social workers need to, to make sure that we have a true understanding of what are the systematic issues that are at play here that brings about these types of situations. And that's an important piece. I mean, we talked about in the article about racial profiling. You know, racial profiling not only happens at the law enforcement areas, it also happens within other ways around service providers and they are working with communities of color. So we need to be real clear about that – from the racial profiling that happens in law enforcement and traffic stops, to the expectations of teachers of African-American children in their classroom and what you think that they should be able to accomplish, for the quality of care then the access to care that African-Americans have in the health care system, all those sorts of things. It's a much broader, much broader, systematic issue than just law enforcement. But I think that both social workers and law enforcement officers and the things that we've been seeing lately is really just symptomatic of some bigger issues that we still need to address. 

GILGER: Yeah. So much of the conversations about policing right now and about sort of the distrust of police, particularly from African American communities in the country, have to do with, I guess, understanding that, like you're saying, but also just this idea of the culture of the police departments across the country. And it sounds like what you're talking about is sort of a culture shift and a shift in the way that police could approach things if they learned some lessons from the way social workers approach things. What do you hope would come from this if this were to happen? 

WILLIAMS: Well, the reality is that our communities are not the same community as they were in the '50s when I was a kid. They're very different in some aspects of the challenges that's going on within communities to just sort of the day-to-day existence of life. But the police department, and I think law enforcement, I think there's a need for a much more sort of humanitarian approach to individuals and humans and understanding, yes, there's a need for safety. Yes, there's a need for law enforcement. But, yes, there's also a need for a stronger partnership, a true partnership between the communities and law enforcement. And I think that partnership can be helpful. I, you know, and I think there's learning that can take place in regards to how police officers interact with communities, how they support communities, and then their perceptions of communities and the need for additional training, an additional knowledge around sort of the how communities exist and what they exist about. And so, again, I don't want to, it's not a panacea. I want to be really clear about that. There's work that needs to be done on both part. But the reality is that, the power right now is with the law enforcement officer and not with the community. And I think around sort of, how do you address those disparities? How do you address the power? And how do you come up with a much stronger working solution around, how do you address the interfacing and interaction between law enforcement officers and African American community and specifically African American males? 

GILGER: Alright. That is James Herbert Williams, the director of ASU's School of Social Work talking to us today. James, thank you so much for the time.

WILLIAMS: It's been my pleasure.

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