Dear Officer, If Social Workers Can Work With The Mentally Ill Without Killing Them, So Can You
I find it deeply troubling to see 1) how untrained police officers are, 2) how unaware officers are of their lack of training, and 3) the level of criminal cohesion that occurs in a law-enforcing “profession.”
“A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that cadets usually receive fifty-eight hours of training in firearms, forty-nine in defensive tactics, ten in communication skills, and eight in de-escalation tactics.” Halpren, New Yorker, August 10, 2015
When I lived in Germany for six months during college, I stayed with the police commissioner of Muenster, Germany, Karl-Heinz Lohmann. I was there exactly at the time Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police. Herr Lohmann accosted me when I came in the door that day demanding to know if I had seen the news. I hadn’t. He wanted to know if this type of behavior was common. He wanted to know if this how American police behaved. He was appalled.
I explained that I had been with my boyfriend when we were stopped by an officer without cause, harassed, illegally searched, because he was black and we were in a former sundown town. Therefore, I knew police did mistreat black people. At the time, I couldn’t tell him how common it was. However, I also pointed out that it was a little bit heavy-handed for anyone from Germany to talk about human rights abuses. This is when he became even more animated.
“Don’t you see that we have learned our lesson. Our police must have four years of college. They must be educated so they are not so vulnerable to radical beliefs or prejudices.”
Herr Lohmann left frequently to travel to East Germany, because the police officers in the formerly totalitarian government needed to be retrained how not to abuse the rights of citizens. This included avoiding police brutality and excessive use of force which had both been common under communism. I wish I had been able to ask more questions about what he was doing to help East German police officers unlearn bad habits, because maybe we need to import the curriculum.
I came back to the United States where I received many years of training to work with people who have serious mental illnesses. The only other group I can think of who spends as much or maybe more time with this group of people are police, because of failed social policy in the United States. Estimates are that 50–70% of incarcerated people have a mental illness. They should be in hospitals or community mental health settings, but as a country, our national will doesn’t seem to rise above locking them up.
Probably low estimates are that 25% of people killed by police are mentally ill such as Anthony Hill, Jason Harrison, Lavell Hall, Tanisha Anderson, Kajieme Powell or Margaret LaVerne Mitchell. Most of the time, their names are not spotlighted among unarmed or even armed, but incoherent individuals killed by police. This is particularly disturbing, because these were people whose threat to the police was similar as the threat posed to social workers. We don’t carry weapons. Our training helps us to avert crises with deescalation of conflict. Given the frequency with which officers encounter the same people we do, they should have the same skill set.
Of course, when push comes to shove, social workers can always call the police, so that does always mean you are where the going to be there when even we think the threat has exceeded our verbal skills. However, I come back again to how can police in other countries handle their populations with less aggressive tactics, but ours can’t?
With our social work training comes additional training on oppression, poverty, and the causes of social ills. It would seem the police need these classes, too. I seen many officers online make derogatory comments about the communities they have to work in without showing any similar knowledge about how poor communities came to exist and continue to be trapped through racism and classism.
A police officer in my Iowa hometown, for example, needs to know that there were two marches on City Hall in 1967 and 1968 respectively because of a death in custody and a police brutality complaint. Plenty has happened in the meantime, but today is an era of renewed activism. Communities have long memories, and fresh anger about police violence will bring these back as there has been a questionably-armed, black- man-killed-by-police in 2012 there now, too. The context of all of this: it is the most segregated city in Iowa and has a 24% unemployment rate for black people compared to 4% for white people.
Finally, someone else pointed out that as sworn officers of the law, it is your duty to report the bad behavior of your colleagues. For you, choosing not to do so is truly becoming an accomplice. As social workers, it is in our Code of Ethics to report other social workers who aren’t behaving ethically. I did this in 2004, and it was very costly to my career. There are always consequences for being a whistleblower. But that’s what you do. Sometimes, because it’s right. Sometimes, because it’s the law.