The similarities between law enforcement and social work are apparent to anyone familiar with the fields—and the differences are even more obvious. The two fields are bound by semifrequent professional interactions and a connection to the larger slate of social services. But the core disparities between the two fields seem to stem from completely different visions of how society should work. One thoughtful piece at Social Work Degree Guide notes that upholding the law and helping people find the resources they need are, at heart, socially conservative and socially liberal pursuits, respectively. Law enforcement organizations do contribute to socially liberal change across the country, and apprehending criminals is often hugely helpful to victims of their misdeeds and to society as a whole. However, the baseline assumptions about social work and police speak to the expectations placed on professionals in each field and the roles they assume at work.

Those assumptions also explain why law enforcement organizations, particularly those that have gone without such services in the past, tend to make waves when they do allow social workers to join the ranks. In towns such as Bloomington, Indiana, local law enforcement forces have added social work offerings to their slate of services, a move that invites headlines and draws questions. What do these highly trained non-officers do when they take the role of a law enforcement social worker? How does the job resemble other forms of social work, and how does it differ? Are there areas of social work that conflict with the core functions of law enforcement?

To be sure, many relevant answers are best provided by the law enforcement agencies themselves, as one department’s services, outreach goals, and approach to the merger of fields will differ from another’s. At times, the variation may be stark enough that the jobs carry the social work name but hold little else in common. Even so, trends do emerge when exploring both law enforcement agencies new to the social work field and innovators who have offered such services for some time.In towns such as Bloomington, Indiana, local law enforcement forces have added social work to their slate of services. Click To Tweet

Law enforcement social work: A practical view

Certain challenges and day-to-day irritations are endemic to both police and social work. In many cases, both institutional problems and individual annoyances can be encompassed by the same alliterative term: “frequent fliers.” Used to describe individuals whose choices, living situations, and other factors put them in frequent contact with law enforcement, the term can spark distinct—and generally unpleasant—memories for officers, who almost all have a “frequent flier” horror story or two.

The situations behind frequent flier contacts are often heart-wrenching, especially for those whose recurrent difficulties stem from mental illness or other circumstances beyond their control. Still, officers can feel conceptual pity and practical annoyance for such individuals in equal measure, perhaps growing with each interaction. Likewise, an agency may desperately wish to guide an individual to the correct services, but feel hindered by costs, disconnection from the court system, or any number of other factors. Their motivations may include a combination of humanitarian (“this person deserves help”) and financial goals (“I’m tired of paying to put this guy up for the night!”).

The numbers tend to support anecdotal evidence that these frequent fliers represent a significant drain on the average agency’s resources, not to mention individual officers’ goodwill. In Oregon, a study of two departments found that hours spent on mental health calls nearly doubled during a six-year period, at 248 combined hours spent at the start and 489 spent by the end.In Oregon, a study of two departments found that hours spent on mental health calls nearly doubled during a six-year period. Click To Tweet

Experts quoted in the same study recommend that law enforcement agencies offer services that sound quite similar to baseline social work. These include making proactive contact with at-risk individuals instead of waiting for reactive call responses; diverting these individuals to resources that may help them lead a happier, more productive life; and imparting officers with a broader selection of crisis intervention skills.

A law enforcement social worker’s high-level job description could read as follows: a professional who fields calls and manages situations that would normally only fall to the department by default. Bloomington (Indiana) Police Department (BPD) chief Mike Diekhoff offers the following:

“The biggest benefit is we are not tied up on calls that really are not police-related. They are not law enforcement or criminal type calls.”

An agency’s addition of a social worker is much like the decision to hire an administrative assistant to get paperwork in order or an internal psychiatrist to help after a rash of officer mental health challenges. From humanitarian concerns to basic financial issues, there are numerous reasons an agency may wish to make added contact with those in need of help, and do it in a way that is not traditionally managed by law enforcement. In practice, a dedicated social worker bridges this gap.An Indiana police chief on why his department hired a social worker: 'The biggest benefit is we are not tied up on calls that really are not police-related. They are not law enforcement or criminal type calls.' Click To Tweet

Examining the training benefits of police social work

A social worker’s role as facilitator doesn’t stop with members of the community, however. A Government Jobs page for one such posting mentions another important role social workers play in law enforcement: “Conducts in-service training for police officers regarding the role of social work [relevant to their jobs], and other educational seminars relevant to the officers.”

Installing an expert who can review procedure, audit individual interactions, and promote a treatment- and help-centered mindset aligns agencies with society’s increased focus on social equality and fair treatment of the underserved—without reducing fundamental law enforcement services.

Indeed, regimented roles may be exactly what a given department needs to quell criticism. Converged services are a growing trend in public safety circles everywhere, but numerous experts protest the idea that officers themselves should step into the social work role. While liberal and conservative voices alike have decried the trend, both schools of thought boil down to the notion that forcing officers to carry out social work functions dilutes the core mission of police work.Installing an expert who can review procedure, audit individual interactions, and promote a treatment- and help-centered mindset aligns agencies with society’s increased focus on social equality and fair treatment. Click To Tweet

The presence of an expert allows the agency to dial in on functions specific to the job, making perhaps the best possible compromise between the need for community- and apprehension-minded law enforcement. Without a dedicated hire, an agency wishing to instill social work values into current practice may need to pay consultants to approach procedure, trainers to impart changes, and other experts to ensure a smooth transition, hoping they’ll be able to maintain the course once changes are implemented. A department with a social work expert has an ongoing presence to instill changes and monitor their ongoing progress.

A social worker need not be in a supervisory position to help a department determine how to promote officer adherence to new standards. In a consulting capacity, for instance, a law enforcement social worker could work with academy trainers and others to define departmental goals and identify traits that help the organization achieve them. This outline would help guide the hiring, ongoing development, and even dismissal of frontline officers and others. For supervisors without direct experience in the social work field, these insights could offer lasting value to guide procedure and departmental culture, with a dedicated presence to continually shape matters in line with expectations.A department with a social work expert has an ongoing presence to instill changes and monitor ongoing progress. Click To Tweet

Conclusion: New roles for a changing industry

Of course, no change happens overnight in a bureaucratic field, and it is safe to say the precise role a social worker can play in law enforcement depends on the situation. Social workers in Houston, Texas, for instance, ride with officers to mental health–related calls, while others—including Bloomington’s force, going by Chief Diekhoff’s description—work as a sort of after-the-fact referral to guide individuals to appropriate resources.

Whatever individual differences remain, however, it is clear the trend of law enforcement social work is expanding. For those concerned about bipartisan issues such as the disproportionate number of mentally ill individuals caught within the criminal justice system, the change represents a positive first step for departments that must deal with the fallout of societal change and shifting dynamics. With clear policies in place and appropriate training, agencies hiring social workers can expand their range of services without adopting an entirely new outlook on police work.