This month, the Bloomington City Council passed the 2021 city budget by a 7-1 vote. The budget includes plans to hire a second police social worker within the Bloomington Police Department.
The inclusion of social workers within BPD has been painted by the department as progressive change, but the organizers of a local petition challenging the recently passed budget correctly disagree. The inclusion of social workers runs counter to calls to defund and abolish the police and instead exacerbates their societal power.
Ultimately, the incorporation of social workers into BPD will weaponize social workers to fulfill the carceral ends of policing. Bloomington community members should be wary of police attempts to portray these new additions to the budget as progressive.
To recognize why police as social workers will be harmful, we must understand the anti-Black history of policing and the ways that institutions such as jails and prisons are meant to control rather than reform so-called “criminal” behaviors. Many of the first police in the U.S. South were slave patrols, while police in the North developed both to return slaves and to protect against “disorder” caused by rampant inequity.
Today’s police departments, jails and prisons are part of what French theorist Michel Foucault called the world’s “disciplining power,” which outlines who is a criminal and who is not based on who the government most needs to control. We can understand police, then, as the foremost apparatus charged with controlling the people who are subjected to the worst inequities.
As police on campuses across the world quell unrest by people who protest for better conditions, police in Bloomington and beyond have been able to do very little to mitigate every day harms such as domestic violence. Bringing social workers into police departments marks a commitment to defining those people subjugated to inequities as “criminals” that deserve punishment, rather than as people who need access to more, and better, resources.
Social workers are meant to abide by a code of ethics that directly contradicts the racist and carceral nature of policing, and their work — if separated from policing and its use of control and punishment — may open possibilities for transformative justice. The ethical principles guiding social work mandate a commitment to service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence.
Donyel Byrd, local social worker and an author of the petition, said, “One of our values is to promote social justice. So if we see injustice happening, which is racism, sexism, homophobia, all of these things...that we know exist in the system of policing, what are we to do about those things as we're part of that system?”
Employing social workers within BPD compromises the integrity of the values underpinning the social work field and puts them in the service of a carceral apparatus that routinely over-polices, incarcerates and murders Black and Brown bodies.
Furthermore, the intent of social work is drastically different from the goal of policing. While policing is inherently carceral in its ends, the same is not true of social work. The preamble to the National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics ensures that the primary mission of social work is to help meet the basic needs of all people, particularly the vulnerable and oppressed.
Rather than incarcerate, social workers seek to meet the needs of communities preemptively. Police are reactive in all cases, but social workers, at their best, are proactive. Hiring social workers within police departments undermines the ability of social workers to fulfill these needs through two primary tactics.
The first is by lending legitimacy to the carceral systems which police social workers now work within. When hiring a second police social worker is painted as a solution to centuries of police brutality towards Black and Brown communities, officers are able to sell BPD’s model as a beacon of progressive change. This so-called reform denies the need to remove policing from community aid, blocking deeper structural change.
Kass Botts, a permanent supportive housing caseworker, said, “Whenever we say this is the best thing that we've got right now, or this is a step in the right direction, we're lending legitimacy to the idea that people's health and mental health and substance use issues are criminal issues that need to be treated in a carceral way and need carceral solutions.”
In fact, incarceration is dire for many experiencing mental health issues. In federal prisons, 66% of incarcerated people report not receiving any mental healthcare despite incarcerated people describing prison itself as traumatizing. Even if social workers are present during an arrest, they are ultimately assisting the police in incarcerating an individual.
Second, police weaponize the social worker’s positive relationships with the community to incarcerate community members. While social workers rely on mutual trust to aid individuals, police rely on authority and control.
Sam Harrell, a local social worker and petition author, said police have, “tried to use me...to get their job done. I can't tell you how many times BPD came into the homeless shelters that I was directing, and lied egregiously, demanded entry, and tried to get me to help them serve warrants to get me to give them information. Because they knew that I would have a better relationship, therefore, I could help them carry out their job.”
No institution, including social work, is free of racism. Despite working with predominantly Black and Brown clients, 70% of social workers are white. Despite maintaining positive relationships with the community, social work privileges whiteness. Embedding social work within police departments combines the police officer’s authority to use force with the social worker’s positive community relationships. This makes communities more vulnerable to police, not less.
What is the role of social workers in the movement to defund and abolish the police, if not working within police departments? The petition calls for the creation of a 24/7 coordinated crisis response model staffed by service providers and health care workers and created in collaboration with marginalized community members. Rather than aid police in making arrests, involved social workers could connect patients to psychiatric treatment and resources outside of the system of policing.
However, social workers can only connect people to resources that already exist. The petition attempts to expand these resources, calling for the 4% increase in BPD’s budget to be reallocated to community organizations.
Byrd seeks a world led by transformative justice, which responds to violence by connecting people to resources rather than further perpetuating violence through incarceration. Such a system of transformative justice cannot rely on merely adding social workers to existing policing structures.
“Ultimately, mostly, I would love to see us work ourselves out of a job. I think right now, we're so focused on figuring out how we can fit into current structures that are so flawed and so damaging to those very people we're trying to help, that we don't see alternate ways of addressing safety and harm,” Byrd said.
Across the country, social workers are refusing to do the work of police. These social workers are imagining transformative roles for their jobs, and they, like the social workers we interviewed, know there is no place for policing within transformative justice and no place for social workers within policing. Answering to the police corrupts the ethos of social work.
Maddie Butler (she/her) is a sophomore studying international law and Arabic at IU. She is the Director General of Indiana Model United Nations.
Bradi Heaberlin (they/them) is a second-year Ph.D. student studying geography and informatics. They are also a member of Young Democratic Socialists of America Bloomington and the Graduate Workers Coalition.