Police Social Work in Emergency Response Situations

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Pandemic fatigue, aggravated by the economic and psychological strain brought on by life under lockdown, has ramped up violence across our nation. Homicide and intimate partner abuse have surged since March 2020. Now more than ever, first responders — including police social workers — play a key role in helping communities cope.

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.

Police social worker discusses a case with a coworker.

The Multifaceted Nature of Social Worker Crisis Intervention

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 lines. Social workers continue to administer assistance, guidance, and healing after the immediate crisis has passed and those affected are gathering strength to deal with it.

The nature of social worker crisis intervention is multifaceted. It may involve intervening in accidents, such as an automobile collision involving a handful of individuals, or it may involve interceding in major catastrophes, such as a chemical plant explosion affecting hundreds.

People who experience disaster may be displaced from their homes, physically injured, or grieving lost loved ones. They may have incurred serious property damage or have lost their jobs. Above all, they are angry, confused, frightened — in short, feeling a mix of painful emotions in response to trauma brought on by sudden disaster.

Social workers are trained to address these emotional needs. They especially look out for the most vulnerable among those affected. They serve the people who are often hardest hit, such as the poor, homeless, or mentally or physically challenged.

In the end, each incident calls for a different set of responses from crisis intervention social workers, but the goal is the same: offer comfort and support to people in distress and point the way forward amid the aftermath.

Disasters Have Societal Impact

Disasters harm not only individuals, but society as a whole. Recently, in the U.S. alone, disasters have become more destructive and costly. According to a 2020 article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate.gov site, “2019, 2018, and 2017 have each produced more than a dozen billion-dollar disasters that impacted the United States — totaling 44 events.” These disasters, many of historic proportions in terms of severity and damage cost, included wildfires, hurricanes, and floods.

Events like these cause severe social and psychological fallout. The training of social workers prepares them to help mitigate the effects of disasters and render aid when they strike, but they can’t go it alone. They can and should join forces with other professionals, including law enforcement. The goal is to better help communities that experience the consequences of emergencies stemming from natural and manmade disasters, terrorism, hate crimes, and more.

Working as team members, professionals from different fields can be stronger together and help those in need. In this way, communities are empowered and inspired to emerge from the wreckage with renewed strength of purpose.

When social workers team up with law enforcement on a regular basis, either as consultants or police department employees, they’re known as police social workers. What’s the nature of the police social worker role, and how do police social workers engage in crisis intervention? First, consider how the role of social work itself has developed in response to global need and has paved the way for today’s rapid strides in the field of police social work.

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 frontline crisis intervention is especially critical given the sharp increase in federally declared disasters over the past two decades. Whether natural (hurricanes, floods) or man-made (war, crime), disasters invariably bring trauma. Social workers have traditionally provided healing and guidance to people affected by disasters. With the arrival of the COVID-19 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 has not changed, the arenas in which they are 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 COVID-19 pandemic, but also in social inequities that impact some citizens harder than others. The need for non-aggressive 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.

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 COVID-19 pandemic
  • An increased distrust of current policing tactics that has 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 Law Enforcement

In the U.S., police officers field a flood of 911 calls. Troubles range from drug overdoses to homicide, from neighbor disputes to intimate partner abuse. To help address these demands, police departments across the nation are increasingly partnering with social workers in crisis intervention.

Lifting the Burden from an Overtaxed Police Force

How can social workers help? A police social worker working in tandem with law enforcement can help lighten the load of an overburdened police force and provide people in crisis the benefit of trained mental health care. This frees police officers to apply their professional skills and experience to responding to crime rather than issues that may need only mediation.

Recently, the police department in Alexandria, Kentucky, found that two-thirds of its 911 calls didn’t concern lawbreaking. In one case, a Vietnam veteran called 911 more than 60 times over the course of a year because he was having nightmares. Police officers hired a social worker who was able to connect the veteran with medical treatment through his Veterans Affairs office.

Training in Ethics and Cultural Competence

Social workers who partner with law enforcement in response to the public’s cries for help 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.

A social worker’s “person-in-environment” mindset can reduce the intensity of volatile situations. According to a recent editorial in The Detroit News, this mindset can help avert tragedies such as community members or law enforcement being shot and killed during a routine police call. The editorial further adds, “If partnered with police agencies, social workers can help restore trust and safety in our communities.”

Collaboration Between Emergency Response 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 three of the various models through which social workers and law enforcement collaborate to provide emergency response. These models include crisis intervention teams (CITs), co-responder programs, and law enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD) programs.

Crisis Intervention Teams

A crisis intervention team (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, in thousands of communities across the U.S., CITs connect the following parties:

  • Law enforcement
  • Emergency response social workers
  • Mental health professionals
  • Emergency health care 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 Programs

Between 2015 and 2020, according to the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), “Approximately 5,606 people in the United States were fatally shot by police officers. Of those, 1,254, or 22% were people with mental illness.”

In one such occurrence, a 27-year-old man with a history of paranoid schizophrenia was cutting himself with a butcher knife, threatening others, and 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. When situations between police and those they are sworn to serve and protect become volatile, tragedies happen.

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.

Benefits of co-responder programs include the following:

  • Reduced burden on an overloaded justice system
  • Improved interconnectedness between community services and police officers
  • Speedy access to mental health and other care
  • Better collaboration between police officers and social workers
  • More efficient use of police officers’ time on the job

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Programs

The flagship Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, based in Washington’s King County, is a coalition of community groups including law enforcement, mental health providers, and others.

LEAD addresses community safety by endeavoring to help people who commit low-level, poverty-based crimes such as prostitution or drug abuse. It provides police officers an alternative to booking these individuals as criminals. Instead, it offers offenders the community services they need, breaking the cycle of police sending people with behavioral health issues through the criminal system.

In the long run, all of these programs are only as viable as the support they receive from the community. Effective collaboration between law enforcement and social workers depends on buy-in from community leadership, extensive training in cultural competence, and enough funding to support program implementation and maintenance.

The Role of 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

The following are descriptions of some of the specialized tasks of social workers who conduct mental health emergency response.

Critical Incident Debriefing

After a traumatic event — such as a school shooting, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or 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

A police social worker 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

Specific Programs for Mental Health Emergency Response

A number of specific programs around the nation support the efforts of social workers who are contributing to mental health emergency response. These programs attest to the good that grassroots efforts among local law enforcement and social work agencies can accomplish.

Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team

In 2018, Dallas 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 Assistance Response

The Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) team is a community program in Denver. 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.

Mobile Crisis Response Teams

In the autumn of 2020, San Francisco 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 aim to reduce police intervention and increase public safety.

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, a subset 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

Sources

Bureau of Justice Assistance, “Police–Mental Health Collaboration Toolkit”

Chron, “Career As a Police Social Worker”

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

Clinical Social Work Journal, “The Role of Social Work in the Aftermath of Disasters and Traumatic Events”

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

Exploring Your Mind, “Social Workers in Emergency Situations”

The Guardian, “The US Police Department That Decided to Hire Social Workers”

International Crisis Intervention Team, “CIT Guide”

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

King County, “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD)”

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”

Mental Health Center of Denver, “STAR”

National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Designing CIT Programs for Youth

National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Programs”

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Has COVID-19 Changed Crime? Crime Rates in the United States During the Pandemic”

NPR, “San Francisco Cops Will No Longer Be Called 1st for Nonviolent Crisis”