We need an army of social workers working in our higher-crime neighborhoods, reaching people before they turn to mindless violence or gangs with compassionate, humane assistance. It's clearer now than it has been for years that, especially for many black Americans, the police are often an occupying force of violence -- "I can't breathe" -- and not a path for help.
That doesn't mean police officers are bad people. It means we are using armed men and women with the power to arrest and detain to try to prevent crime. That only works for those criminals who are only deterred by force. For all the people who commit crime for other reasons -- an emotional inability to handle short-term conflict, a lack of resources to manage drug or alcohol addiction, for teenage males a lack of social structure like a job or after-school activities to prevent predictable bad decisions -- armed officers are of no benefit. And instead, they can make things worse.
This is an opportunity not just for protest (which, ultimately, is a bit empty) but for policy improvement. We hire and create our local police departments. We can reshape them for our times and our needs.
The United States spends $100 billion a year on police protection every year -- an increase of 445 percent since 1982. We've got the money now to really prevent crime. We just have to redirect it to social services that help people without many resources live prosperous, healthy lives.
Here's a great excerpt from a 2000 North Carolina paper explaining the institutional dynamics of social work and law enforcement.
The historical background of the police/social work relationship indicates that, for over a century, social
service has been considered a key part of policing, and serving victims of crime and offenders has been a major
emphasis of social work. Law enforcement and social work have served the same target groups but with varying
Police calls for service are crisis situations where police respond, stabilize and then partner with human service agencies that provide client
based services and case management to prevent the problems that result in subsequent calls for service.
However, finding the money for social workers is always harder than finding the money for police officers.
That's why police departments themselves should hire social workers. Instead of two separate agencies trying to work together to serve the exact same population (with almost always a limited degree of success), the social workers should be part of what the police department does. This gets police departments in the business of preventing crime, not just imposing force on people.
Most police officers know who the at-risk people are -- especially the younger males. They know which kids are most likely to follow their uncle into a gang or to lose their temper over something and get violent. But it isn't the police officers' job to help those people make better choices. Instead it is the officers' job to sit and wait for them to make a bad choice and then to pounce. That's a dumb use of our tax dollars.
Police departments should be 25% or 30% staffed by social workers with the job to work with their colleagues and partners -- police officers -- and help the particular people identified by the officers from becoming a criminal. It's so much cheaper to keep people out of the criminal justice system altogether so we never have to pay for jails or judges or prosecuting attorneys or parole officers. That's why we should change our $100 billion police force in the US into a force for preventing crime by helping Americans who need the help make better choices.
And that's something every single municipality in the country can do. This year.