Social Workers Can’t Help People in Crisis by Partnering With Police

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot recently announced a “co-responder” model for addressing mental health crises, pairing social workers with cops on the scene. That model is wrong. Social workers can’t aid people in need by partnering with a police department that has a long history of unchecked brutality.

A Chicago police car in 2008. (Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons)

Becoming a social worker requires living with several major contradictions. I have sat through repeated lectures on the importance of the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, which emphasizes the dignity and worth of the person, the individual right to self-determination, and the ethical mandate to fight oppression. But, working in the field, I quickly came to realize that many social work jobs actively disregard these standards and principles in how clients and workers are treated. Social worker Kim Young uses the phrase “moral injury” to describe the harm caused when social workers are put in situations where they cannot provide the care and services needed, or are forced to act in ways that violate their ethical code due to lack of resources or a reliance on policing and control.

Last year, groups in Chicago organized around a local ordinance called “Treatment Not Trauma,” which aimed to reallocate police funding to non-law-enforcement mental health crisis responses. After long negotiations, the city council narrowly voted to include a compromise version of the plan presented by Mayor Lori Lightfoot that features what is called a “co-responder” model.

In the program passed as part of the 2021 city budget, police officers respond to emergency mental health calls alongside a mental health worker and a paramedic. While this may sound like an improvement on the previous practice of simply sending armed police to mental health crisis calls, this solution leaves much to be desired. Forcing social workers to partner with officers of a police department that has committed and covered up the murder, torture, assault, and disappearing of countless Chicago residents for decades will only cause more harm to people seeking care, as well as moral injury to the social workers who provide support alongside armed agents of the state.

The “co-responder” model seeks to have social workers partner with Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers on mental health crisis calls. This same department recently shot and killed a thirteen-year-old child, Adam Toledo. Many social workers have condemned this wanton act of brutality and criticized Mayor Lightfoot and Alderman George Cardenas for their comments about Adam, Adam’s family, and the Little Village neighborhood where he lived, blaming everyone but the police for the murder.

Would a social worker accompanying a police officer bent on shooting a thirteen-year-old be in danger from CPD themselves? Would they be able to provide support and resources to a frightened teenager — or would they need to spend their time de-escalating the police officer they are partnered with?

Social workers face considerable distrust from communities due to the profession’s long history as a tool of social control. The last thing our field needs is more partnerships with police — especially a police department doing so little to regain community trust and support, and to roll back its long history of brutality.

Mayor Lightfoot expressed the view that police must accompany mental health workers when responding to mental health emergencies in her address, announcing the “co-responder” pilot and seemingly deriding an alternative proposal, “Treatment Not Trauma,” that called for diverting funds from CPD for a non-police crisis response team of mental health workers. She stated that:

There are no magic wands to wave, no snapping of fingers or catchy slogans, and whatever course we take must be tested on the streets of Chicago, and must be built to address our urban realities and not those of some other city that does not reflect our diversity, our history, or our current reality.

The mayor seems to be operating under the assumption that people experiencing mental health crisis are dangerous and violent. These perceptions come, in part, from the fact that our standard for diagnostic criteria, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), has long used the language of psychiatry to justify the pathologization of marginalized groups and the use of physical force as the only way to contain and control them.

In fact, the American Psychiatric Association changed the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia to include language around aggression, delusions, and paranoia as a way to pathologize participants in the Black Power movement. This isn’t distant history: Nicolas Carter wrote about being subjected to psychiatric abuse by his employer, Cards Against Humanity, because he discussed his experiences with racism, leading to a forced psychiatric hospitalization at Illinois Masonic Medical Center — a hospitalization that happened because he tried to organize his workplace.

Britt Hodgdon, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in trauma recovery in children and young adults and who currently works with people living with HIV on Chicago’s South Side, had this to say:

I’ve done crisis work in a few clinical settings across the city’s South and West sides. The first hurdle in helping a person get safe in their body and in community is always trust. “Who is this stranger talking to me, and what’s their angle?” My job is to authentically be “beyond systems,” to work within the legal confines of my role but to put that person who’s in crisis first. Their basic needs for bodily safety, nourishment, safe housing, food, and adequate resources require prioritization.

In order to do that, it’s critical that I work with some independence in that space, so that over the course of that interaction, I can help a person regulate and reorient back into their body . . . A professional marriage between police and social workers would damage my capacity to offer that level of safety, as most of the people I’ve served have heavy duty systems trauma.

Maybe they’ve experienced incarceration or violence at the hands of the police . . . They’ve experienced violations of safety from all angles. Sometimes a person’s entire future can hang in the balance of crisis resolution. “Will I walk away from this conflict? Will I find my will to keep trying? Will I allow this stranger to help me get to a hospital or a loved one?” It’s often tenuous. The risk of police on scene ups the ante immediately, as does the presence of a weapon. The air changes. We can’t work toward safety when the danger is right there in the room with us.

Many people are still experiencing stress, grief, and trauma due to the COVID-19 pandemic and any number of stressors that can cause people to reach their breaking points. According to a report released by the Collaborative for Community Wellness, 86 percent of Chicago residents say there are not enough mental health resources in their community, and 90 percent said they would seek services at a free, city-run mental health clinic. During this time, 63 percent of respondents reported anxiety, and a majority reported dealing with depression.

This is an issue that requires additional investment and expansion of the CDPH mental health centers — including reopening the twelve public mental health clinics that were shut down by former mayor Rahm Emanuel. We need systems of care and support, not more cops.

The version of the “Treatment Not Trauma” ordinance originally drafted by 33rd ward alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a master of social work student herself, was modeled after existing programs like CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, and STAR in Denver, Colorado. Even New York City, not a place known for progressive policies that reduce the scope of police, is creating non-police mental health emergency response teams.

All these programs and the “Treatment Not Trauma” proposal envision new ways to provide care and support to people in crisis. In the first six months of the Denver STAR pilot, mental health workers responded to 748 incidents (most involving homelessness or mental illness), none of which resulted in arrests or injuries for either the mental health workers or the people in crisis they were aiding. The program is considered a success by the public, and even by the Denver police superintendent and cops themselves (a group known for deriding mental health workers). A program like this, if properly supported and funded, could succeed in Chicago.

Unfortunately, the amount of funding allocated to this work in the last Chicago budget is insultingly low, and it must be split between both a “co-responder” model and a non-police crisis response model. Social workers are all too familiar with this pattern of deliberately setting programs up to fail by refusing to provide sufficient funding. Chicago’s non-police responder pilot received $1 million for a one-year pilot to serve 2.71 million residents, while San Francisco received $16.8 million for a two-year pilot to serve 874,961 residents.

Any approach that puts mental health workers in collaboration with law enforcement crosses a “red line” for many social workers. Social workers across the country have mobilized to demand that the field’s professional body end the promotion of social workers collaborating with police.

The question is not whether there are individual CPD officers who are caring, compassionate, and have received crisis intervention training. Rather, the problem is that the department as a whole has a long track record of openly disregarding fundamental standards social workers are mandated to follow in our own code of ethics, including upholding the dignity and worth of every person and ending all forms of oppression. Social workers should not be working alongside such a police department.

Chicago would have an abundance of resources to provide care and support if it redirected them away from a police department that has consistently carried out terror and torture, and instead put them toward mental health care, housing, education, and other fundamental public goods. A publicly funded mental health response program would be one essential step in creating non-carceral systems of mental health care.

Chicago could have been a model for the rest of the nation in creating a budget centered in care, compassion, and the sanctity of life, one that addressed financial concerns by diverting money away from CPD’s bloated budget and redirecting it to health services, fully funding a program addressing the critical need for mental health services without police. Mayor Lightfoot and too many of Chicago’s city council members have instead chosen more death, trauma, suffering, and austerity.

Social workers must challenge this deliberate act of cruelty by organizing together to build worker power and create collective liberation. Supporting models like the Treatment Not Trauma proposal is the first of many important steps in building a world where quality mental health care is a public good, truly rooted in care rather than functioning as merely a cardigan-wearing extension of policing and imprisonment.