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Statement: Social Work Response and Recommendations on Police Reforms

Monday, July 13, 2020  
Posted by: Jamie Klufts
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Social Work Response and Recommendations on Police Reforms


The National Association of Social Workers - Massachusetts Chapter (NASW-MA) Criminal Justice Committee, hereby offers response and recommendations to the omnipresent, and long-standing, national issue of police brutality and racist practices embedded in police systems and culture. While this response is offered in concert with media coverage and exposure of unjust and inhumane brutal police responses, it is written to highlight many concerning and commonplace practices ingrained in the culture of policing that actively serve to disparage, degrade, and disempower community members. 

Social workers have been called upon to lead an alternative approach to community safety. Social workers are trained to respond to individual problems in the context of their environment and are skilled in partnering with communities to leverage resources for people rather than locking them away. Our social work ethics mandate that we value social justice, including developing skills related to oppression, cultural humility, and racial diversity. This means that social workers cannot address community needs without community partners and any response that shifts from police to social workers must be in partnership with communities, many of whom are already doing this work. 


Recommendations for reform are not novel to this national debate, nor new to local policy makers. NASW-MA, and advocates including the NAACP, Mass Police Reform, Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Campaign Zero, among others, have long highlighted the need and sense of urgency for police reform in the state of Massachusetts. It is unfortunate that this discussion is now reactive, and that the consequence of inaction is the loss of Black lives. The following synthesis of exigent problems with policing and recommendations are informed by community members’ experiences and calls for change. The NASW-MA does not intend to speak on behalf of impacted communities, but rather to help facilitate action and collaboratively work toward effecting change. 


The Disconnect Between Police and the Communities They Serve

Community members predominantly interact with police systems over non-criminal matters [1]. Consider the context by which police may be dispatched: homelessness, substance use, mental illness, domestic disputes, landlord/tenant disagreements, wellness checks, and other related social service issues. These are complicated issues that often require coordinated and trained social service response. However, routine encounters with police responding to calls like these have had consequences as dire as death. This demonstrates that police are ill-equipped to respond to such matters. Bearing this in mind we recommend:

  • Current proposed legislation to improve and transform public safety (HD 5128) and end qualified immunity which serves to further erode community trust (HB 3277)

  • Investment in community service agencies and support

  • Establishment of an external (non-police) emergency response team

  • Removal of police from schools

  • Acknowledgement of direct links between racism and the prison pipeline


In Support of Bill HD 5128

MA Bill HD 5128 is An Act Relative to Saving Black Lives and Transforming Public Safety. It proposes policy centered around police accountability, and aims to earn and restore the community’s confidence in universal public safety. This bill, endorsed by NASW-MA and other advocates including the ACLU of Massachusetts and the NAACP, clearly articulates easily implementable restrictions on the use of force by law enforcement. Highlighted below are notable policy reforms proposed in the bill that would immediately effect change and improve the health and well-being of disaffected communities.


  • Requirement that officers employ de-escalation techniques prior to use of physical force, with physicality being employed only in extreme circumstances proportionate to what is appropriate

  • Prohibition on the use of deadly force

  • Public release of all police disciplinary records

  • Disciplinary mandates for officers who engage in excessive force

  • Termination of employment for officers who engage in excessive force that results in serious bodily and psychological injury or death

  • Re-hire restrictions for officers disciplined for use of excessive force

  • Duty to report mandate for officers who witness officer-led excessive force

  • Ban on the use of rubber bullets, and tear gas by law enforcement

  • Ban on the use of chokeholds by law enforcement


The aforementioned policy changes are proposed in response to law enforcement’s biased and disproportionate impact on people of color in the United States. Current police tactics have proven ineffective, and as such, precise policy aimed at abolishing unnecessary and punitive power wielded by police will prevent future tragic outcomes, as well as encourage and uphold systemic change in law enforcement.


Failed Efforts at Reform

There have been innumerable attempts to address police misconduct on both the local and national level in the United States. In 2016 the US Department of Justice, under President Obama, investigated police practices in major American cities, and found issues of acute, concerning, and overwhelming racial disparities that resulted in police brutality, racially targeted searches and arrests, and ongoing harassment of community members [2]. Highlighted in their findings was the conclusion that police work, as it stands, serves to sever and erode community trust. 


These findings lay at the heart of attempts to reform policing which have inevitably failed. As communities despair, and demand more of their public safety officials, it is time to concede that reformist practices (body cameras, community policing, increased training, community/civilian review boards, installing social workers directly in police departments), however well-intended, have not yielded hopeful results, as evidenced by continuous and unchanging demonstrations of police brutality against communities of color. Research on these practices has been mixed, generally showing no improvement, or some short-term improvement, but no long-term sustainable progress. It is time to try something different. The below recommendations are an effort to respond to emergent community needs, understanding that investment in systemic reforms aimed at improving community trust are equally needed.


Reallocation of Funding: Community Service Support and Investment

The aforementioned disconnect between police and their communities requires a revisioning of how best to ensure community safety. To do so will require addressing the root causes of harm, such as racism, inability to meet basic needs, trauma exposure, and poor health. Investments in racial justice, mental health, social welfare, and restorative justice can and do prevent harm and reduce arrests and incarceration in the long term. Such investment could take the form of:

  • Funding housing initiatives to respond to issues of homelessness

  • Increasing and expanding the number of trained and available mental health and social workers in communities

  • Creating job programs

  • Expanding the scope and availability of substance use treatment facilities

  • Ensuring availability and access to fresh and healthy food sources

  • Ensuring availability and access to community health centers and providing preventative screenings


Reallocation of Funding: External Emergency Services / Rapid Response

We understand that even in a society where people’s basic needs are met and services are available, emergencies and disputes will still arise. However, we also know that historically, the police often respond to such emergencies in a way that exacerbates the conflict. We must unbundle community calls for help from police work. Every day, multiple times a day, police respond to calls involving homelessness, mental health, substance use, domestic disputes, child behavioral concerns, and other social service-related issues, none of which police are qualified to triage. To unbundle would be to reposition these calls for help from law enforcement to agencies or units that are uniquely qualified to attend to them. The creation of an external (non-police) emergency service rapid response team, designed to thoughtfully, empirically, and collaboratively respond to these emergent, community issues will reduce improper police response, while simultaneously better responding to community needs. 


Police and School Systems

Seventy-one percent (71%) of nationwide public schools have sworn officers installed in the school system[3]. Data has shown that school police are more likely to refer children to law enforcement, even for benign or less serious offenses [4]. Even more, the great majority of the students subject to criminal justice discipline are students of color [5]. This significantly increases the likelihood of children being tracked into the criminal justice system and the school-to-prison pipeline. 


Recently, a school police officer’s body camera captured the rough handcuffing of a sobbing Black six-year-old girl in Florida [6]. Similarly, a school officer was found to have physically assaulted an 11-year-old Black boy, by slamming his head into the ground, in an unprovoked response to ‘misbehavior’ [7]. These examples are used to draw a comparison to the known incidents of police brutality across the United States. Unfortunately, research shows that having police in schools does not make students any safer. On the contrary, the American Federation of Teachers, in 2018, proposed a resolution to separate school safety and policing[8]. They did so by acknowledging that students felt infinitely less safe and targeted with officers embedded in the fabric of their school system. 


Evidence-based practices have been proposed at both local and national levels, as an alternative to school police. Restorative justice programs are heralded as an appropriate, continuous, and communal response to student-centered conflict [9]. Remarkably, such interventions are known to prevent gun violence, and increase trust between students and staff, allowing students to reach out or speak up if they feel unsafe or at risk. At its core, alternative strategies have been investigated and empirically tested, and are shown to create safer and more welcoming environments for students. Demonstrable evidence supports the call to remove police from school systems in deference of students’ health, safety, and livelihood. Removing police from schools will also make more resources available for social services which are ideally delivered by social workers. The National Association of Social Workers has recommended a minimum ratio of one social worker for each 50-250 students, depending on student need.



As social workers we have been trained to address the root causes of social problems. Every day we confront these problems head-on without the use of weapons or force. We know how to deescalate people when they are feeling volatile, and we know that addressing the environmental and systemic causes of that volatility is the solution. We urge you to join us in imagining a world where social problems can be solved at their root through community-led social change rather than through punishment in the criminal-legal system. A different way is possible, and we can move toward a safer, healthier society by moving away from our reliance on police and moving toward a broader social welfare system that proactively responds to social problems. There are already people in our communities who know how to implement this vision; it is time to invest in those community members instead of police. As social workers we are ready to join with our community leaders in the fight for a better future. We ask you to do the same.

Prepared By:

Deb Goldfarb, LICSW

Co-chair, NASW-MA Criminal Justice Committee 

Brandy Henry, PhD, MA, LICSW

Co-chair, NASW-MA Criminal Justice Committee 

Kimberly Hula, LCSW

Member, NASW-MA Criminal Justice Committee 

Sarah Coughlin, LICSW, LADC-1

President, NASW-MA 

Rebekah Gewirtz, MPA

Executive Director, NASW-MA













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