“It’s About Power”: Interview on Social Work and Policing

A protester with “Defund the police” sign in downtown Washington DC, June 1 2020. 

As the protest movement that emerged from the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor transitions from street protest to demands around defunding the police and creating alternatives to policing, various fields of social work have been put forward as offering alternatives. In this interview with Texas based social worker J. Rogue, we discuss the pitfalls around the “replace police with social workers” narrative and more.  

BRRN: Coming out of the discussion of abolishing the police and how we can reduce policing in our daily lives, one suggestion has been to call for replacing police with social workers especially around responding to mental health related issues. What’s your first response to that?

J. Rogue (JR): I mean, I can see the logic – clinical social workers are mental health practitioners and crisis intervention and treatment is generally a part of the training. There is already precedent for this – many cities have Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams (MCOT), which have varying degrees of relationship to the police (some work with 911 dispatch, others are sent out by their agency). Although, even if you call for MCOT, there is still no guarantee that a police officer will not accompany them, or even be sent in their place if MCOT has their hands full. But I don’t think the issue is (just) about the training of the people on the ground; to me, it’s about the power they wield and their relationship to the State. And these conversations on reform tend to ignore the ways that psychiatry is intricately tied to and mirrors the prison system.

Another thing to consider in this focus on training is that it’s not just the implicit bias of those responding to calls that is the problem; it’s those placing the calls as well. Even if we zoom in on the one-on-one interactions between the public and the enforcers (which makes it seem like a problem of individuals rather than systemic), asking that they be better trained to be aware of their implicit bias or to have cultural competence or some other nonprofit buzzword renders invisible the role that those not directly employed by the State have in policing – the “informal” surveillance, the tacit agreement between the ruling class/white/cis/etc public and the State that makes one complicit in the enforcement of the law. Also, it is important that we closely evaluate the possible consequences of reforms, both intentional and unintentional. Rather than approach strategy from a defensive position (which can cast any reform as a win), I think we should be basing our strategy on clear political goals. This can put libertarian socialists at odd with liberals and others, but without a clear vision for where we want to go and how we get there, it is easy to be co-opted, sidelined, or to settle for less than what is needed.

BRRN: So the idea of a social worker being called to intervene seems much safer than a police officer with a gun. As a social worker yourself, tell us about some of those powers and their relationship to the state? Why should we be concerned about this?

JR: That’s a big conversation, but there are two things that come to mind as things currently stand most places: mandated reporting, and emergency detentions. 

Social workers, like nurses, teachers, and others, are mandated reporters – meaning we are legally obligated to report suspected child or elder abuse. This can funnel children into the family regulation system (aka Child Protective Services or CPS) or direct the police to intervene into people’s lives. Some of the arguments made for reforms to address the problems caused by mandated reporting tend to be similar to the ones we see suggested for police; raising wages for people investigating abuse claims, decreasing their caseloads, or providing them with “better” training. This is not to say that there are not situations of abuse that require intervention, but when people point out horrific abuse within families as a justification for the existence of CPS, I am reminded of the people who reject prison abolition because “what will we do with the murders/pedophiles/etc?”

Another issue is “emergency detentions,” also known as involuntary commitment. If an MCOT staffer decides a person is a danger to themself or others, they can call a police officer to detain a person under a psychiatric hold against their will. Is the demand for social workers to replace police including an ask that we be able to issue those holds ourselves? No thanks. This is not a liberatory proposal – it is integrating social workers more deeply into the system of social control. Instead of Good Cop/Bad Cop, it’s Good Social Worker/Bad Cop.

BRRN: If we had a friend or loved one in a situation who we thought might pose a danger to themselves or others, what would be an alternative to addressing the immediate situation or danger and providing them with care? What would be a more libratory proposal, or perhaps less punitive approach, around how to address issues of individuals facing mental health crises?

JR: I don’t think there is any one person with that answer, or any one-size-fits-all approach. The redistribution of police funding into housing, health care, (voluntary) comprehensive substance use treatment, I think, helps address some of the issues that are aggravated by a mental health crisis. Some mental health crises do involve the possibility of danger, usually the potential of suicide, but a lot of mental health-related 911 calls are related to a desire for social control – people feeling nervous, uncomfortable or afraid of the individual. I think a lot of times, people feel this manufactured fear of mental illness that is instilled by the media and the ableism inherent in white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy. We know that people who experience mental health issues are ten times more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

I think a larger conversation needs to be had about the lack of agency patients often have over their own treatment when it comes to mental health. As we work to develop alternatives, it is worth looking for insight from models like Baltimore’s “violence interrupters,” which utilizes a public health perspective; writings on neurodivergence & neurodiversity; or at the Psychiatric Survivor Movement. I think that creating voluntary spaces for respite and healing is important, but that must be separated from the push to remove and confine people who society deems to be “deviant.” 

In my experience, there are many people who find psychiatric medications helpful or even life-saving. But when I encounter patients who refuse medications, the problems that arise related to being unmedicated are, in my opinion, a failure of our society to support all people. A big focus in the psychiatric industry is “medication compliance,” rather than building in the supports that can help a person live a whole and happy life regardless of their treatment decisions. There are people doing what I would think of as prefigurative work around mental health treatment, such as the Fireweed Collective, that focus on the things that can actually help a person in crisis – things like emotional support, advanced directives and other preventative planning, education and training for the people in our lives to be prepared to navigate a crisis without state intervention. I don’t think there is any one perfect example of a model that can be replicated everywhere, but I think we need to be trying these alternatives to see what works and what doesn’t.

BRRN: Let’s return to mandated reporting and social work. On one hand these rules are reportedly in place as a way of preventing abuse from being swept under rug and systematically neglected, but what are some of the problems? Specifically around social work, what types of barriers can they pose to providing care and how would you change them?

JR: This is a tough one. I think one thing that needs to happen is to create a culture that does not shame or isolate people experiencing abuse (“It’s not my family/not my business”). I do not want to downplay the violence that some people experience at the hands of their family, but State intervention into abusive situations has the potential to create more trauma and violence rather than less, and we know that the system is rife with racism and a legacy of colonialism. In short, mandated reporting means that a clinician (or teacher/nurse/etc) must decide between possibly placing a patient in danger by making a report, or risk losing their job, license, etc. There are some calls to address oppression in the field of social work that acknowledge this, generally in a reform-minded way, but I believe that the power dynamic between clinicians and patients is inherently damaging to any therapeutic alliance. Why would you be honest with your therapist if there could be dangerous consequences? 

J. Rogue is a Texas based clinical social worker and member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra. They are a co-author of the recommended pieces “Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality” and “Insurrections at the Intersections: Feminism, Intersectionality, and Anarchism.”