Police or Social Workers?

I entered a Ph.D. program in rehabilitation psychology decades ago for two reasons. The first was that friends who had sought psychiatric treatment did not seem to do well. In fact, some seemed to be in worse condition post-treatment. The second reason was that individuals with psychiatric disorders were being killed by the police. My goal was to better understand why these things were happening and to hopefully make a difference. Many decades later, these problems still have not been solved. My goals remain the same.

Many suicide victims are in treatment with mental health professionals when their deaths occur. In my opinion, we need to focus more of our attention on the nature and quality of the care that they were receiving before their deaths. In this post, however, I want to focus on the issue of police killings and on the question of whether some police calls should be answered by social workers.

I have for many years encouraged people to call for an ambulance instead of for police in the event of a psychiatric emergency. The fact is that some psychiatric emergency calls can be dangerous. In those instances, my thought has been that EMTs can call for police backup when necessary. However, this does not always work out in practice. The 911 operator might send police anyway. Sometimes police may be accompanied by fire trucks but not by ambulances.

The result of our present practice is that 50% of individuals killed by police are disabled. While we are all well aware that 50% of police killings are of minority group members, less attention is paid to the deaths of disabled individuals. There is considerable overlap in these two populations; many disabled individuals may also be minority group members. Disabilities involved often include my own professional specialties, psychiatric disorders, brain injuries and related substance use disorders, but individuals with hearing, vision, and speech disorders, autism, mobility disorders, age-related cognitive disorders, and others have also been killed by police.

We often look to either/ or answers to complex questions. In this instance, answers seem to be taking the form of (1) either defund the police and hire social workers for this work or (2) provide more training – like de-escalation training – to responding police officers.Given my many years of work with individuals who can often be very challenging – on the streets, in hospitals, jails, medical facilities, and in many other locations, I want to express my views on this topic.

The work that people like me do can be dangerous. We rightfully pride ourselves on never shooting or killing anyone. We excel in the use of words and in the use of certain skills like listening skills as we work to defuse volatile situations. In fifty decades of work with challenging individuals, like most people doing my kind of work, I have never had to call the police for assistance.

However, I never go out into the field or into the streets without an accomplice, I avoid working outdoors in the dark of night and I do not attempt to interact with individuals on the streets who are exhibiting drug-induced violent behavior. Words and listening skills do not help in instances like this. Moreover, I am nearly always outfitted with location-enabled security devices wherein I can call for police assistance if necessary.

To be honest, I think that it is unrealistic to look at this question as one with an either/ or answer. There are some dangerous individuals out there. It is also interesting to me as I look back on my interactions with police over the years, they have nearly always been helpful. I have even found some police officers to be more compassionate than some social services employees, some street outreach workers, and some shelter employees. There really are some “officer friendly” police personnel still out there.

I have seen jail inmates receiving excellent medical care. I have seen more careful jail or prison discharge plans made than some hospital discharge plans. I have seen shelters kick disabled homeless individuals out into the cold and snow immediately for minor rules infractions. In fact, I’ve seen great cruelty inflicted upon this population by non-police personnel who were supposed to be helping them.

I would like to see a hybrid solution to the question of police killings. I’d like to see police being offered and trained for a career path that could focus on medical crises and responses. In those instances wherein violence is not anticipated, wherein weapons are not involved, I’d like to see more social workers answering calls. By this I mean real social workers holding Master’s degrees in their field. I do not support this responsibility being fulfilled by underqualified police auxiliary personnel.

With respect to social workers answering calls, they would need additional training as well. Understanding disability-related issues is not generally a part of their graduate school or undergraduate school training. I have often brought my people to MSW level social workers for assistance and I have found – without exception – that they have been very interested to learn more about the disability-related factors that may be involved in an individual’s circumstances.

I want to close with a true story. I once spotted a post online wherein an individual located on the other side of the country threatened to kill himself. There was no doubt in my mind that this was a serious threat, especially given that the individual claimed to have a gun and given that he threatened to shoot anyone who tried to stop him.

I was reluctant to call the police for the usual reasons. Instead, I contacted a national suicide hotline via an 800 number … and they refused to respond. They cited the man’s possession of a gun and his threat to shoot anyone who responded. They told me to call the police.

As it was, I had a police contact in that city and I contacted him. I expressed my concerns about helping this man without killing him. They responded immediately and I received a return call a few hours later. The man had been safely approached, nobody had been hurt, his gun had been located and he was then in the hospital receiving treatment.

My police contact had sent a highly trained police mental health unit to this potentially very dangerous situation. What was most surprising of all was that the suicidal man subsequently posted – upon his release from the hospital – that he wanted to publicly thank the police for intervening, saving his life. and possibly that of others. He cited their patience and extreme professionalism. He also wanted to thank whoever had contacted them on his behalf. My name had never been mentioned, at my request.

Just as some pedophiles have found their way into some religious organizations like the Catholic Church, individuals with a propensity towards racism and violence seem to have found their way into some police departments. Let us hope that these churches and police departments will respond enthusiastically to calls for change. We will probably always need police to respond to some calls for health care related services. I know that they can do a great job when properly trained.