Alternatives to Policing: Are Social Workers Really a Solution?
Updated: 5 days ago
This will be a long read, with many opportunities to explore further research. I invite you to save this blog in your browser in case you need to take a break and return to it when you have more capacity to intentionally absorb and engage with the information being shared.
With demands of defund and abolition comes conversations of what could replace police as alternatives. The first thing to be suggested is often social workers, but are social workers really the solution? Social work, just as many other professions we see as "helpful," is an arm of colonial violence. The profession is rooted in mass displacement, family separation, forced treatment, and various abuse tactics. I know a lot of you don't want to hear that; some of you are probably already feeling uncomfortable by reading this. But if we're going to have conversations about replacing police institutions and do the work in creating alternatives, there must be an understanding that what we don't want is to replace policing with other forms of policing but rather, eliminate policing and create networks of care between people and communities that are rooted in love, healing, and sustainability.
"Those who make this argument typically cite the lengthy education, deescalation training, and cultural competence training that social workers must undergo to practice in their field, compared to police officer training, which is generally much shorter and emphasizes the use of force. However, the rhetoric of social workers as a one-size-fits-all solution to police brutality overlooks the history and current reality of social work as a perpetrator of systemic racism, and how this field uniquely impacts Indigenous and Black communities." - Sophie Wirzba
It's taken me longer than expected to write this blog. Since starting, news about the murder of Jordan Neely was released. Jordan was a 30-year-old houseless person living in New York City and was murdered on the subway by a 24-year-old marine veteran named Daniel Penny. At the time, Jordan was yelling "I don't have food, I don't have a drink, I'm fed up" while on the train. Jordan was expressing his frustration with his situation and instead of having his very basic needs met in that moment, someone sharing a snack or a bottle of water, a civilian put Jordan in a chokehold on the subway car for 15 minutes which ultimately led to his death. Media outlets reported this incident as a "mentally ill homeless person having a mental health crisis." We're often quick to name these moments of self-expression a "mental health crisis" - myself included. But reading the conversations online, something really stuck out for me; a Tweet that basically said "is this a mental health crisis or is this a policy crisis?"
Thanks to contemporary neuroscientific studies, it's now scientifically proven that poverty alone has a massive impact on our cognitive, emotional, and stress regulation systems. Parts of our brain become filled with stress as a result of being in a constant mode of flight or fight when we are deprived of basic material and emotional support (i.e., lack of food, shelter, education, and health-care) that our decision making abilities are consistently compromised. It's important to understand the lack of choices one has when living in poverty, and the energy we put into decisions such as buying groceries or paying rent. "You didn't make good choices, you had good choices" is a perspective on privilege that people need to remember more often.
These discussions make me think of my own struggle with poverty and my hesitancy in seeking mental health support. On one hand, I know it would be good to talk with someone if only to simply share my feelings. On the other, I know my problems come down to the daily racism I face and trying to exist within capitalism. I mean, therapy alone is not even something I can afford. Not to mention, based on experience, half my sessions would be spent educating the person sitting across from me on the many realities that exist within white supremacy culture. Money can't buy happiness, but it sure does help keep a roof over your head and food on the table so we can focus on creating joy. Wouldn't it make more sense to allocate funding in a way that ensures our basic needs are met like home and food security? The lyrics to Jelleestone's song is literally "money can't buy me happiness but I'm happiest when I can buy what I want, anytime that I want." What is the point of giving millions of more dollars to police and mental health "professionals" to respond to the disparities they have created and continue to uphold? Understanding the history and the way these professions continue to be weaponized against us shows that the only point is to uphold the status quo to ensure there will always be a gap in equity. It's not a "broken" system; this is all by design.
Social work has historically, and is currently complicit in, perpetuating white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and racism through practices of segregation, surveillance, dehumanization, and policing of Black and Indigenous communities. Just as being a cop makes you complicit to a system of historical and ongoing violence, being a social worker is no different. And when social workers partner with the police, they are also complicit in the racial violence and oppression they produce. When you show up, that is what you represent regardless of your personal politics or identity. I'm sorry but, you're not "changing the system from the inside." A system built on oppression cannot be changed or reformed, it must be dismantled.
In 2009, Calgary launched PACT (Police and Crisis Team) which is a partnership between Alberta Health Services and the Calgary Police Service where a psychiatric nurse, psychologist, registered nurse or social worker will show up with a police officer in a situation where an individual is experiencing a "mental health crisis." We have had 14 years to see this collaboration in progress and data shows it's not working. Calgary remains top 5 of police-involved deaths within Canada, many of which the victims were experiencing a "mental health crisis." So much of this harm comes from the way most people still operate from a place of bias leading to stigmatization and in a society that fails to teach people our true history, there is no room to dismantle those biases that upholds the harm done within these spaces.
Bias is a disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that is closed-minded, prejudicial, or unfair. Biases can be innate or learned. People may develop biases for or against an individual, a group, or a belief.
Medical racism, which includes all areas of healthcare, exists because of colonial teachings which form the biases that put Black and Indigenous people in life-threatening danger. Racist stereotypes and assumptions have helped to create much of the "research" conducted on mental health, and that "research" continues to be used as a base for the teachings today. A university degree or 12-week college program is not enough to protect us from racial violence.
In 2016, a survey of white medical students showed that more than half of them still believed Black people feel less pain than white people. This false belief comes from claims made by physicians and scientists in the 1800s who would assert that Black people were biologically closer to apes, while white people were more evolved. This allowed extreme medical experiments and treatments to be done on Black people from women's studies to slavery itself, scientists arguing that African men were "uniquely fit for enslavement" due to their "physical strength" and "simple minds." 500 years of lies and these are beliefs that people still hold true today in 2023; people who hold positions of power, people who act as the gateway between support and criminalization. Race was constructed to justify exploitation and violence, and the exploitation and violence remains ongoing.
In the mid-1800's, colonial governments used the roles of missionaries and traders to act as the agents between settlers and Indigenous Peoples through the process of colonialism on Turtle Island. These people would be tasked to bring food and supplies to those being displaced, while also suppressing any resistance made by those who chose to fight back against dispossession. They would then report back to the government on how "well" their tactics were working. The idea of "charitable work" actually came from these practices, where individuals saw a need - while simultaneously creating that need - and figured they could do "good work" by being the ones to distribute the supplies to fulfill those needs. Through the violence of assimilation and extermination, agents would then use basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter as a means of coercing Indigenous peoples to submit to the rule of the settler state. Essentially, this practice of early-day "social work" is how churches and missionaries were granted control over Indigenous children and bringing them into residential schools while working alongside "Indian Agents" and the RCMP. There's a great paper written by Craig Fortier & Edward Hon-Sing Wong called 'The Settler Colonialism of Social Work and the Social Work of Settler Colonialism' that is a recommended read to those interested in diving deeper into this history. If this all sounds familiar, it's because the systems in place today have not changed, they've just rebranded.
Social workers have always played a primary role in the mass separation of Indigenous children from their families, beginning with their work in the residential school system which has since rebranded into Child and Family Services (CFS). According to a census done in 2021, nearly 60% of children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous but account for only 7.7% of the child population. At the peak of residential schools in 1953, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report said more than 11,000 Indigenous children were in residential schools. Now, at least 14,970 out of 28,665 foster children in private homes under the age of 15 are Indigenous. The areas with the highest numbers of Indigenous children in foster care include Yukon, North West Territories, and Nunavut (where 100% of children in foster care are Indigenous). Ironically, there is a high population of non-Indigenous social workers, and health care personnel in general, who are sent from other provinces across the country to work in these territories. Based on information from Indeed, the average salary for a social worker in Nunavut is approximately $97,565/yr or $51.80/hr (56% above the national average), flights to Nunavut can range between $2,000 to $4,000, and accommodations are often paid for by the government. Meanwhile, groceries for residents still costs up to 3 times more than the national average, nearly 70% of the Nunavut population are food insecure and, based on a housing report in 2022, Nunavut has the highest rate of inadequate, unaffordable housing.
If people really wanted to support those forced into marginalization by the state, the focus would be on supporting the dignity of those individuals in ensuring they have access to basic needs and protecting their basic human rights. Instead, what we see is non-Indigenous people making decisions on what they think is best based on a lack of culture awareness, racial discrimination, and learned bias. We see millions of dollars spent on policing poverty and creating the conditions in which poverty can thrive rather than eradicating the systems in place that maintain poverty.
"Just as there is no 'both/and' strategy in the work of abolition, there is no place for a 'both/and approach to social work in policing. Social workers need to completely divest from systems of harm and work from the outside toward their abolition. This is the only path." - Alan Dettlaff
Forced and involuntary treatment is another way social workers and other medical "professionals" have historically used their power against those suffering within these systems; a tactic that has been used for centuries. When enslaved people would run away from plantations, they were said to be suffering from a "mental illness" known as drapetomania so were either returned to slave masters to be tortured and punished, or held by mental health "professionals" to be tortured and punished. This use of "mental illness" has been long practiced to create the situations in which Black and Indigenous Peoples face institutionalization in psychiatric facilities as a form of punishment for their acts of resistance toward colonial authority. If someone who is already deemed a threat isn't presenting themselves in a way that's palatable to the white gaze, any punishable form of criminalization can quickly be used to shut it down. Another paper I recommend reading to further your knowledge on this topic is that from Nadia Kanani titled, 'Race and Madness: Locating the Experiences of Racialized People with Psychiatric Histories in Canada and the United States.'
Forced treatment is legal throughout most of Canada, made possible through the allowance provided by the Supreme Court of Canada, for everything from treatment for drug use to mental health treatment. Essentially, anyone society deems "unwell" by societal norms can be admitted and held in a hospital, mental health facility, or drug treatment program. Again, rather than addressing the way race-related stress impacts the physical, psychological and social well-being of racialized people, and working to dismantle the systems that uphold that stress, it is weaponized against us in a way to further oppress and silence us. The world does not want us to heal because with our healing comes our uprising.
"In many ways, the success of colonization depends on the maintenance of
discipline and social order in subordinated groups. By regulating Indigenous people
through psychiatric institutions (among other forms of regulation such as penal systems and residential schools), settler societies have been able to permanently subordinate Indigenous people and ensure the transfer of Indigenous land to colonial governments." - Nadia Kanani
The idea of "changing it from the inside," whether you're a social worker, teacher, city councillor, etc., is a fever dream, one that will almost always require the reliance on respectability politics to protect the position of illusioned power rather than progress for the people. Social work is a position of power, a tool of white supremacy, and that tool is used against us every day in the fields of mental health, palliative care, education, child and family services, prison systems, and community outreach. Using social workers as an alternative to police intervention is simply a reformed version of the harm we know now, and the long history of liberal reform teaches us that reforms have not only failed to make things better but have actually reinforced the problem.
"When we set out trying to transform society, we must remember that we ourselves will also need to transform." - Mariame Kaba
There can be no top-down, us vs. them, approach to our liberation. As a budding Abolitionist, I dream of something far beyond these structures and institutions. I dream of a world where the centre of focus is mutual aid, self-determination, bodily autonomy, radical transformation and radical healing; a world built on communities of care and networks of nurture. I dream of a world where expressing our needs isn't met with death. In fact, I dream of a world where our needs are met before we even have a chance to ask.
"Taylor McNallie dedicates her time to seeking racial justice and collective liberation through education and hands-on work with both marginalized communities and allies alike. As the co-creator of Inclusive Canada, she provides education on anti-racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. She is also a member of the Walls Down Collective which provides access to no-barrier resources and care such as Harm Reduction, free food programs and an alternative to local policing."
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