A horde of social workers won't fix our crime problem
In 2020, U.S. political figures began to propose reassigning some — or all — police responsibilities and resources to social workers. This was presented as if it were a brand new idea, not one floated since the concept of social work began to settle into academia at the end of the 19th century.
In spring 2021, Representative Cori Bush (D-Mo.) proposed "The People's Response Act." Its numerous goals include grants to replace police with social workers, reimagining law enforcement, increased mental health resources, and addressing violence against people with numerous specific characteristics.
At first glance, it might seem plausible that specially trained professionals, working long-term with troubled individuals might guide some away from antisocial choices, even expecting high failure rates because individuals can resist ideas, even ideas likely to have positive consequences.
The Oxford Reference website describes two main schools of criminology. Classical criminology assumes that criminals act out freely chosen, rational decisions. Positivist criminology, embraced by social workers, places the causes of crime outside the individual, using statistical analysis to uncover nefarious influences that cause antisocial behavior.
In their own writings, social workers reject a person-centered approach to interactions with clients. An article in the British Journal of Social Work states, "Social work practice is not able to hold true to the value & principle of respecting service users' basic autonomy & right to self-determination." Instead, the answers to crime spring forth from collective action within the crime-ridden community.
In a fraught situation, appealing to the individual's ability to think and act rationally might have better success reducing tension. For an agitated stranger, a social worker's preferred demeanor of "unconditional positive regard" might appear condescending.
After perusing some materials about and by social workers, it seems some of the most vigorous proponents of social workers as an alternate-reality police-lite option have been social workers. It appears that, to social workers, physical tools like specially equipped cars, weapons, kevlar vests, and handcuffs are incompatible with police using conversational techniques to defuse tension if the opportunity arises.
Social workers are aware that social workers are subject to violent attacks by clients. In 2011, 58% of 1,129 social workers surveyed said they had "direct experience of client violence." After the killings of social workers in Boston and Kansas, social workers set up campaigns supporting federal and local legislation addressing violence against social workers. It's already illegal to beat up anybody, so let's make beating up a social worker double-plus-illegal. Another goal is greater public awareness of the potential for violence against social workers. What exactly public awareness of violence toward social workers accomplishes is not explained.
When facing threats to their own physical safety, social workers have surprising awareness of real-world information that might be useful for dealing with agitated antisocial individuals. In a 2011 webinar on social worker safety, Christina Newhill, Ph.D., ACSW encourages risk assessment of every client, noting prior violence; drug or alcohol use; weapons; and demographic, clinical, and biological characteristics. There are even imminently practical suggestions, like removing from offices objects that can be used as weapons. Omitted are outside forces affecting behavior. The characteristics to be assessed, if mentioned by police or the public in connection to criminal behavior, in the current year, would be depicted as bigotry.
Anyone considering moving funding to social workers and from police should access and compare any available information about the efficacy of the two professions in reducing crime rates.
A 2018 Brennan Center paper describes an NYU project centered on 264 cities in the years 1990 to 2013. Every new nonprofit in cities of over 100,000 is claimed to lower homicide rates by 1.2%, violent crime by 1%, and property crime by 0.7%. The American Sociological Review article by the NYU study authors says a "theoretical and empirical literature on the crime decline" overlooks "how violence is regulated through informal sources of social control internal to communities." "Our goal is to present causal evidence on the impact of these organizations on crime and violence in U.S. cities." The study used "a fixed-effects framework and adapt an instrumental variable (IV) strategy to identify the causal effect of nonprofits on crime." Fixed effects are designed to control for omitted variables, and instrumental strategy is used for "controlling unobserved sources of variability" and assume no direct effect on outcome. The impact of nonprofits on crime was not tested but assumed.
The above research assumes that nonprofits organically develop within the community and depicts police as imposed from the outside. This ignores nonprofits operating locally but created by federal funds, and police being under the control of local, elected officials.
Police numbers in the U.S. increased with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which earmarked $1 billion for community policing grants that put 7,000 new police officers on the street. Steven Mello of Princeton University Industrial Relations Section saw an opportunity for a natural experiment. Mello compared changes in police numbers and crimes, finding large and statistically significant effects of police on robbery, larceny, and auto theft, even correlating with fewer murders. The even better news is that decreases in crime following increases in police numbers don't correlate with increased numbers of arrests or a spillover effect into other communities. According to Mello, "[t]he results highlight that fiscal support to local governments for crime prevention may offer large returns, especially during bad macroeconomic times."
Even the most routine interactions between police and the public have the potential to suddenly escalate to a violent crisis. For the safety of the general public, individuals experiencing or creating a crisis, criminals being apprehended, and the public servants expected to resolve dangerous situations, the best, most reliable tools should be readily available. The use of physical instruments for communication, transportation, protection, and control, and talking to calm agitated individuals are both methods successfully employed by police every day. Where social workers fit into crime reduction efforts is unclear, even with a century of attempts to assume usefulness and claim influence on decreasing crime rates that coincide with increased police presence and resources.
Image via Needpix.
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