Defund the Police and Social Work’s Relationship to State Coercion and Control

Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Meenakshi Mannoe, Dylan Lambi-Raine & Donna Baines

The dynamics and tensions surrounding social work’s complicated relationship to the state interweave with the most troubling issues currently confronting the profession and practice of social work. This blog explores the role of social work in the movement to defund the police.

2020 was marked by widespread social movements, arising in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and numerous police-involved killings in so-called Canada – D’Andre Campbell, Eishia Hudson, Ejaz Ahmed Choudry, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, Barry Shantz, Chester, and other unnamed victims (CBC Deadly Force Database, July 2020). Disrupting the commonsense ideology that police always serve and protect, organizers such as Black Lives Matter-Vancouver, Braided Warriors, and the Defund 604 Network have shown that policing is racially violent, resistant to reform and currently extends into areas such as policing Indigenous people on their sovereign territories, terrorizing Black and Indigenous people through tools such as street stops, and criminalizing people experiencing mental distress.

READ: OPEN LETTER: Regarding the violent arrests of Braided Warriors on February 19, 2021 

In response to grassroot community organizing efforts, a number of municipalities proposed shifting unspecified amounts of funding from police to social and mental health services, rather than completely defunding the police (Rubenstein, 2020). For the most part, social work leaders responded that they were ready and willing to step into this gap in care and services (Sherraden, 2020). As defunding became a viable response to ongoing police violence, social workers were increasingly presented as an alternative to police, yet we know that in many communities, social workers function parallel to and participate in policing rather than working from a neutral and autonomous space grounded in the concerns of the community. In August 2020, Eddie Uehara, dean of the University of Washington School of Social Work warned “we must not squander this moment — in which two-thirds of U.S. adults are expressing support for Black Lives Matter — by merely tweaking 911 operations or swapping out social workers for police officers in behavioral-health crises” (The Seattle Times, 2020). In other words, in order to be effective in these new roles, social workers must confront the white supremacist, colonial violence that is historically and continually ingrained into our pedagogy and practice.

As we consider what it means to defund the police, we must also interrogate what it means to be “policed,” as well as social work’s continued alliance with systems and structures of power, and social work’s current participation in many aspects of policing various marginalized populations (Rasmussen & James, 2020). Consider the discriminatory use of birth alerts – a practice wherein hospital social workers or other clinicians collaborated with delegated social workers to flag “high risk” expectant mothers (First Nations Leadership Council, Sept. 2019). Those deemed “high risk” often faced the apprehension of their babies before they could even be discharged from the hospital. The impact of these kinds of policies is distinctly racialized, colonial and classed, with racialized and poor people experiencing what Idil Abdillahi, social work scholar at Ryerson, describes as part of the “inter-generational involvement of the child welfare system in the lives of Black people.”

READ: EXCLUSIVE: BC ministry warned birth alerts ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ months before banning them

READ: “There was no care”

In light of these ongoing systemic harms, replacing police with social workers raises important concerns as social work has always been both a project of social justice and social change, as well as acting as the long arm of the state. For those based in the social justice tradition, social workers are often characterized as experts trained in “de-escalating tensions, listening, building trust, building relationships, organizing community responses and creating positive pathways forward” (Sherradan, 2020: 3). Drawing on these skills, some argue that social work can retrain and sensitize (Sherraden, 2020), while others argue that specialized police training is not a substitute for preventative measures and crisis services that are grounded in community concerns and lived-experience (Owen, 2020). Similarly, although social workers may be willing to step into the wellness check roles currently filled by police, these roles have become increasingly coercive and carceral; without a very conscious remaking of these services, informed by people who have lived/living experience of the mental health system, social work replicates the work of policing, or acting as the “soft cops” (Poulantzas, 1975) of late neoliberalism.

Miller and Alexander (2016) note that it is not just individual police or social workers who have become increasingly drawn into carceral relations, but also that the hegemony of the carceral state has expanded its tendrils of control and coercion (carceral refers to institutions like jails but also a wide range of policies and practices that scrutinize individuals and communities both before and after their contact with the criminal justice system). This can be seen in the over-policing of neighbourhoods where marginalized people live, meaning that even small infractions are cause for arrest and drastically increase encounters with the legal and prison system. This also extends to heavy security at schools, workplaces, shops and on public transportation, increasing the likelihood that police and carceral solutions will be applied to minor and major social problems (Rodriguez et al., 2020). Immigrants in these same spaces are at increased risk of arrest and deportation as the carceral state extends its reach into sites of everyday life (Bergen & Abji, 2020). In the process, numerous groups of people are vilified, made to live in stressed and conflicted spaces with high tolerance for unmet needs, state control and coercion, and the normalization and legitimation of carceral solutions for social conditions (Miller & Alexander, 2016).

These processes reduce the capacity of social workers to serve as allies or supports to racialized and marginalized people. Social work scholar and anti-violence advocate Mimi Kim calls on social work to sharpen its critical analysis, “of both its harmful and ameliorative roles in efforts towards positive social change” and to commit “to the further building of institutions, policies and practices that contest rather than reproduce oppressive relations of power in its many intersecting forms.” (Kim, 2012:14; emphasis added).

Locally, on unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nations, some social workers have worked to pre-emptively challenge such co-optation, and engage with defunding and abolitionist praxis. In June 2020, 135 social workers wrote to City Council and the Police Board demanding the following commitments:

  1. For Mayor & councillors to individually commit to never again vote for an increase to the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) budget, for the remainder of their respective terms.
  2. To prioritize the expansion of community-led health and safety initiatives over future financial investment into the VPD in all relevant city planning documents.
  3. In solidarity with calls from the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) & Hogan’s Alley Society, to end all forms of street checks.
  4. To propose and implement a VPD budget cut of, at the absolute minimum, $152 million in accordance with the City of Vancouver’s operating budget shortfall projections due to the COVID-19 pandemic in next year’s budget.

In July, a motion entitled “Decriminalizing Poverty and Supporting Community-led Safety Initiatives” received the unanimous support of Vancouver City Council and highlighted Council’s “priority to respond to mental health, sex work, homelessness, and substance use with initiatives led by community, health agencies, social service providers and non-profit societies rather than policing” (City of Vancouver, 2020). The support for the “Decriminalizing Poverty” Motion and the budget freeze for the VPD marked small wins last year. Now, as support for community-led safety and crisis-programming gains traction, we must interrogate the potential roles that social workers will play in a world where we defund the police and imagine how we as social workers must also restructure and defund our complicit or implicit participation in policing that has become increasingly militarized and violent.

READ: Joint Open Letter on Decriminalizing Poverty

Chronic underfunding of community crisis and mental health services has meant that as one of the remaining fully funded public services, police have moved into this gap in the social safety net and frequently respond to calls about mental health challenges. As Mannoe (in Owen, 2020) argues, “The police attendance at these wellness checks can, in fact, escalate situations and put people at real risk. For people who are using substances or experiencing homelessness or who are racialized, that risk is compounded by systemic racism and bias (n.p).” In order to avoid being the handmaidens of the police and simply attempting to reproduce a less oppressive version of wellness checks, social work needs to build its capacity to apply social justice theories, skills and knowledge to everyday practice and to develop accountability to the communities it serves. Beyond creating new roles for social workers, or designing teams where they work with police to provide “wraparound services,” we should instead work with those who are currently supporting marginalized people experiencing mental distress, including family members and peer support workers, Elders and knowledge keepers, overdose responders and ethical substance use navigators.

In terms of wellness checks and other challenges facing social work, the pivotal question is how to remain humble in the face of lived experience, informed by critical theory and practice, and grounded in the priorities of the community while building far reaching social change. A social justice-engaged model and its concomitant skills of relationship building, advocacy, mediation, critical ally-ship and acting as accomplices will be essential for those moving into the new practice contexts that may result from defunding the police, however it is also a model that will serve to strengthen the relevance and integrity of all social work practice.

As a profession that upholds social justice, efforts to defund the police and invest in communities should be professional priorities. Defunding the police is not about eradicating public safety, it is about removing funds from a violent institution, with a well-documented tendency towards oppression and violence, and instead redistributing public funds towards peer- and community-led programs, where directly-impacted folks can exercise autonomy and control over crisis and harm in their community.

WATCH: Abolitionist Social Work: Possibilities, Paradox and Praxis

THE SOCIAL LENS: A SOCIAL WORK ACTION BLOG - The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original author(s) and do not express the views of the UBC School of Social Work and/or the other contributors to the blog. The blog aims to uphold the School's values and mission.