FOR THEM TO REPLACE POLICE
Jon, a social worker in New York City, began to fully understand the relationship between social services and law enforcement during the years they spent working with formerly homeless people at a single-room occupancy building in the South Bronx. In one case, officers arrived in response to a mental health call involving an older woman with severe schizophrenia. As officers escorted her off the premises, Jon said, a staff member of the building who had gone out to smoke a cigarette saw police punching the woman in the head repeatedly.
“That was when I first started to really see, complete blinders off, how the police fit into this,” Jon said. (The Appeal is withholding Jon’s full name because of Jon’s concerns about professional repercussions.)
Since the police killings this year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people, more people have begun to confront the harms of policing, and many are imagining for the first time how police might be abolished altogether. One palatable alternative has emerged: Social workers should collaborate with—or replace—police officers.
But many social workers across the country, including Jon, a member of Social Service Workers Uprising Now-NYC, disagree. Networks of radical social workers in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, and elsewhere are organizing in opposition to increased cooperation between their field and police. Social work, they say, already involves law enforcement and can embrace punitive practices that disproportionately harm communities of color. Some in the field wonder what society might look like if, like police, social work in its current form is also dismantled.