Police Social Work Interventions in Emergency Response

Two police social workers looking at a clipboard.

The U.S. experienced a dramatic surge in violent crime during the pandemic, according to a 2022 report by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ). Even though CCJ’s data suggests a slight downturn in violent crimes as the pandemic wanes, it found that the homicide rate as of mid-2022 was 39% higher than it was in the first half of 2019, the year before COVID-19 took hold. It also reported an 8.1% increase in reported domestic violence episodes after lockdowns were imposed. First responders — including police social workers — can play a key role in helping communities cope with violent crime.

Today, the contributions of police social workers loom large in emergency response efforts. These efforts are evolving nationwide, as new programs emerge that apply social workers’ expertise to a variety of emergency situations.

Individuals drawn to the challenges and rewards of police social work may consider earning an online Bachelor of Social Work to ready themselves for this pivotal, demanding, and timely role.

What Is Police Social Work?

Police social work describes practices such as mediation and crisis counseling that social workers attached to a law enforcement unit carry out. Rather than achieving traditional police goals, the practice involves delivering services in which different strategies are needed. This can be performed in response to incidents that involve violent criminal activity, such as domestic violence or elder abuse. However, it can also be employed in response to nonviolent incidents involving substance abuse or mental health concerns.

Police social work can also include crisis counseling and consultation, as well as influencing legislation, policies, and laws.

What Do Police Social Workers Do?

Police social workers provide coping strategies to people who have experienced violent crime episodes or who are in criminal situations. By employing counseling tactics, providing support, and arranging for needed services, they work to de-escalate potentially violent situations — and calm victims so that they can process their experience, begin healing, and provide accurate statements. Police social workers may also serve as witnesses in court cases.

A social worker working with law enforcement can also help lighten the load of an overburdened police force and provide people in crisis the benefit of trained mental healthcare without the threat of force. This frees up police officers to apply their professional skills and experience to respond to crime rather than issues that may need only mediation.

Additionally, social workers who partner with law enforcement can offer ethical training in cultural competence. They understand that everyone brings a different set of experiences, cultural traditions, and beliefs to the same event. These may be based on race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, to name only a few factors.

Ultimately, police social workers help keep communities safe through their multifaceted work. They can also help law enforcement effectiveness and limit incidents of police overreaction, thus positively impacting a community and its residents.

Police Social Worker Salary

According to the salary aggregate website ZipRecruiter, the median annual salary for police social workers was roughly $68,400 as of November 2022. The median annual salary for all social workers was $50,390 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Factors such as experience, education level, and location can all affect salary.

What Are Social Work Interventions?

All social workers aid people in crisis. When an event is urgent and life-threatening, social workers join other first responders — such as firefighters, emergency medical technicians, or police officers — on the front line. Social workers continue to administer assistance, guidance, and healing after the immediate crisis has passed and those affected are gathering strength to deal with the outcome.

What Is Crisis Intervention Social Work?

Crisis intervention social work is an acute form of social work care designed to help individuals stave off a downward spiral of emotion in the event of a sudden incident. The nature of social worker crisis intervention depends on the incident type and its result. A car crash that leaves someone injured will require a different intervention than a natural disaster that causes someone to lose their home. Social workers are trained to determine and address the emotional needs of the impacted.

Contribution of Social Workers to Crisis Intervention

What exactly does a social worker contribute to crisis intervention? Historically and today, crisis intervention social workers support and advise people in distress, keeping them from harming themselves and others. They also arrange for care and counseling after stressful events and disasters.

Disasters can disproportionately affect those vulnerable populations whom social workers are educated and trained to assist. These populations typically include the following:

  • People with mental illness
  • People with substance abuse issues
  • People experiencing suicidal thoughts
  • People experiencing homelessness

Violent crime is both an outgrowth of trauma and a crisis in itself. Many factors have combined to bring about today’s uptick in violent crime.

  • The economic and psychological stressors associated with the global pandemic
  • An increased distrust of current policing tactics that’s sparked nationwide protests

The U.S. needs crisis intervention social workers to join with law enforcement officials to help people in crisis.

Social Workers and Disasters

Disasters can cause severe social and psychological fallout. These can include natural disasters, such as floods and wildfires, but they can also include human-caused issues, such as hate crimes and domestic terrorism. Social workers’ training prepares them to mitigate the effects of these types of disasters and render aid when they occur. However, they can’t go it alone. They can and should join forces with other professionals, including law enforcement. The goal behind these collaborations is to better help communities that experience the consequences of emergencies.

The Evolving Role of Social Workers in Crisis Intervention

As the number of people in the U.S. confronting crisis situations soars, social workers’ track record as first responders becomes clearer. Social workers have administered disaster aid since the Civil War. During World War I, social workers treated soldiers who had “shell shock,” or what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Social workers’ longstanding history of front-line crisis intervention is especially critical given the sharp increase in federally declared disasters over the past two decades. Whether natural (hurricanes, floods) or human-caused (war, crime), disasters invariably bring trauma. Social workers have traditionally provided healing and guidance to people affected by disasters. With the arrival of the pandemic, a new wave of widespread trauma and loss has swept the globe, and social workers are rising to the challenge.

While social workers’ role of supplying needed humanitarian aid hasn’t changed, the arenas in which they’re called to serve have evolved, especially regarding police social work. Frantic 911 calls to police are often the last resort of people suffering from trauma. This trauma often has its roots not only in social crises like the pandemic, but also social inequities that impact some citizens harder than others. The need for nonaggressive intervention in mental health and family disturbance crisis situations has created new demand for police social workers.

Social workers are tasked now more than ever with partnering with local police forces. In part, this is because experts increasingly interpret behavioral problems as social problems, with social workers offering their valuable and needed expertise.

Collaboration Between Police Social Workers and Law Enforcement

Emergency response social workers work with law enforcement to give caring and effective emergency responses during adversity. The following discussion looks at two of the various models through which social workers and law enforcement collaborate to provide emergency response: crisis intervention teams (CITs) and co-responder programs.

Crisis Intervention Teams

A CIT program aims to improve the outcome for all concerned when police officers are first responders to a crisis. CITs apply a community-based approach.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in thousands of communities across the U.S., CITs connect the following parties:

  • Law enforcement
  • Emergency response social workers
  • Mental health professionals
  • Emergency healthcare providers
  • People experiencing mental health crises and their families

Further, emergency response social workers who work as CIT members can improve communication among groups. They can help connect people in need with helpful resources while working to ensure the safety of police officers and the communities they serve.

Co-Responder Program

There were around 8,000 fatal police shootings between 2015 and 2022, according to The Washington Post’s database, and 21% of these victims were undergoing mental health crises.

When situations between police and those they’re sworn to serve and protect become volatile, tragedies happen. In one such occurrence, a 27-year-old man with a history of paranoid schizophrenia was showing violence toward himself and others and was believed to be under the influence of cocaine. His mother called the police. When police officers arrived, he reportedly lunged at them, and they opened fire, killing him.

The tragedy described above was the 1987 preventable death of Joseph DeWayne Robinson, in Memphis, Tennessee. The incident sparked the creation of the first co-responder program. These programs — involving organized and trained specialized police units — are partnerships linking local law enforcement with mental health and addiction professionals and other advocates. In these situations, social workers apply their training and expertise in treating mental health to de-escalation. Their work providing acute, short-term coping solutions can resolve distressing episodes. Ideally, it can turn potential tragedies into examples of assistance.

Below are examples of these collaborative programs.

Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team

In 2018, Dallas, Texas, launched a coordinated program to respond to behavioral health-related 911 calls: the Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team (RIGHT Care). The team includes local police officers and department paramedics, working in conjunction with local mental health professionals. The goal? To provide people with targeted resources while freeing up the police for other calls.

Support Team Assisted Response

The Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) team is a community program in Denver, Colorado. It redirects certain behavioral health-related 911 calls to local mental health social workers and paramedics. Harm to citizens is reduced, and the police can avoid involvement in nonviolent situations.

Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets

Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) is a Eugene, Oregon-based program that deploys teams featuring a medic and a crisis worker for crisis intervention in a host of situations. These situations can include conflict resolution, substance abuse, and suicide prevention.

Mobile Crisis Response Teams

In the autumn of 2020, San Francisco, California, inaugurated a new approach to 911 calls involving people experiencing psychological, behavioral, or substance abuse crises. Unarmed mobile teams of community professionals were developed that included paramedics, peer support counselors, and mental health caregivers. The mobile teams aimed to reduce police intervention and increase public safety.

The Role of Police Social Workers in Mental Health Emergency Response

The training in cultural competence and ethics that social workers display daily stands them in good stead as mental health emergency responders. In the course of their duties as police social workers or crisis intervention team members, social workers serve diverse populations with diverse needs, including people struggling with:

  • Intimate partner violence
  • Elder abuse
  • Child abuse
  • Mental health issues
  • Substance abuse

The areas of expertise in which mental health emergency response social workers may assist can include the following:

  • Intervening in crisis situations
  • Interviewing children who have been victimized
  • Interviewing witnesses to crimes
  • Mediating disputes
  • Referring people to appropriate treatment

Specialized Tasks of Police Social Workers

Police social workers perform different functions to effectively conduct mental health emergency responses. These tasks include the following:

Critical Incident Debriefing

After a traumatic event — such as a school shooting, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or an industrial accident — a growing number of police departments hire social workers to debrief the people involved, interviewing them soon after the incident about their emotions and concerns. Immediate intervention by a caring professional for people exposed to trauma lessens the chance they’ll develop PTSD.

Crisis Counseling for Children

Tragically, many victims of violent crime, such as physical abuse or rape, are children. Police officers alone are often ill-equipped with the tools to calm these young and frightened victims, so they can accurately report what they’ve experienced.

Social workers who are mental health emergency responders step in, working with police to assist children who have been victimized. In addition to giving emotional support and assuring safety, social workers offer referrals to counseling and may provide follow-up support.

Expert Witness Service

Police social workers must frequently present expert testimony in criminal court, often using charts or graphs. They must translate any technical jargon into layperson’s terms.

In-Service Training

When working with law enforcement, a police social worker often fills the role of educator, coaching officers about practical issues they may encounter in the field, including how to:

  • Defuse a violent situation
  • Spot signs of possible drug abuse
  • Properly treat rape victims
  • Properly treat children
  • Apply cultural competence

Additional Resources for Mental Health Emergency Response

For social workers who are embarking on careers as police social workers or who are interested in improving their skills in this arena, the following organizations offer resources for success:

  • The International Crisis Intervention Team offers resources that outline best practices for communities starting intervention efforts, plus how to sustain them.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides information on how community intervention teams can expand their programs to meet young people’s specialized needs.
  • The Bureau of Justice Assistance, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, offers resources for law enforcement professionals interested in partnering with service providers, police social workers, and other advocates.

Discover a Career as a Police Social Worker

Social workers speak for people during challenging circumstances. They help underrepresented people survive the fallout of crime, trauma, or addiction.

For individuals considering a career in police social work, Maryville University offers a cutting-edge education. The university’s program supports students in their calling to uphold the dignity and well-being of people undergoing tough times. The dedication to see a community through immediate crises and beyond gains traction and meaning at Maryville.

Be brave. Learn where social work practice is put into action through a focus on social justice and ethics, intimate field observation, and a broad-ranging curriculum as varied as the people you’ll serve.

Discover how Maryville’s online Bachelor of Social Work can help you serve communities in crisis.

Recommended Reading

BSW vs. MSW: Exploring Two Social Work Degrees

How Future Police Officers Will Adapt to Trends in Law Enforcement

Mental Health Counseling vs. Social Work


Bureau of Justice Assistance, Police-Mental Health Collaboration (PMHC) Toolkit

City and County of Denver, Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) Program

Climate.gov, “2010-2019: A Landmark Decade of U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters”

Council on Criminal Justice, Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: Mid-Year 2022 Update

Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, CAHOOTS

The Detroit News, “Opinion: Police Should Partner with Social Workers”

The Guardian, “The U.S. Police Department that Decided to Hire Social Workers”

Houston Chronicle, “Career as a Police Social Worker”

The Intercept, “What Drove the Historically Large Murder Spike in 2020?”

International Crisis Intervention TeamCIT International, CIT International’s Guide to Best Practices in Mental Health Crisis Response

LISC, “Co-Response: How Police and Mental Health Workers Are Answering 911 Calls with Care”

Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, Dallas Launches Coordinated Response Program for Behavioral Health Calls

Medical Group Management Association, “Better Together: Maximizing the Benefits of Behavioral Health in a Co-Responder Program”

National Alliance on Mental Health, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Programs

National Alliance on Mental Health, Designing CIT Programs for Youth

Nature Public Health Emergency Collection, “Has COVID-19 Changed Crime? Crime Rates in the United States During the Pandemic”

NPR, “Removing Cops From Behavioral Crisis Calls: ‘We Need to Change the Model’”

The Washington Post, Fatal Force

ZipRecruiter, Police Social Worker Salary

Be Brave

Bring us your ambition and we’ll guide you along a personalized path to a quality education that’s designed to change your life.