Re-imagining Policing, Public Safety and the Role of Social Workers

Interview with Amber Kelly, assistant professor of social work at Quinnipiac University and Barbara Fair, retired social worker, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The nationwide uprising against police violence targeting communities of color which began after the police murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day has made many demands, including a call for defunding police departments. Many Black Lives Matter activists are demanding that millions of dollars from municipal and state police budgets, including lucrative overtime pay, be diverted to fund much-needed mental, physical and emotional health services. One of the professions that’s been highlighted in this discussion is that of social workers. Debate rages about whether social workers should operate within or separate from police departments.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with two Connecticut social workers who have been active in the Black Lives Matter protests. We hear first from Amber Kelly, assistant  professor of social work at Quinnipiac University, who shares her perspective on the role of social workers in policing reform.

AMBER KELLY: My perspective is that policing in our country – they have a very specific type of training, and their training is very different from the way we train social workers. And, many of the reasons the police get called are due to systems of inequity, are due to poverty, are due to poverty, are due to violence in families, are due to a lot of reasons where social workers could have a positive impact. And, at the same time, my view is that social workers should not be working in police departments because of the difference in training as well as the negative relationship that communities have with police departments. And for that reason, I believe that social workers should always continue to act as an agency, an organization, as providers outside of police departments in the U.S.

MELiNDA TUHUS: Some politician – maybe it was Biden – recently said that his daughter is a social worker and he wouldn’t want her going alone to deal with a domestic dispute, which, of course, can turn lethal. Your thoughts, Amber Kelly?

AMBER KELLY: I think there’s a place for advocates and social workers in a crisis response team who’s trained in de-escalation crisis response, showing up. And if someone there is truly in danger, that’s when you call the police, right? If that’s a need in the situation. If it’s not a need, then you have people who are trained in de-escalation, crisis response and family violence, who can intervene and can come up with a plan for that family, for survivors of that violence, that makes sense for them.

I know of situations where it was a life and death moment, and in that moment it was a police officer who saved that survivor’s life. Two hours later that survivor needs other resources, needs other people. But in that life and death moment, a police officer was necessary to keep her alive long enough where she could make different choices, can access resources they need. So, sure, there are certainly times in life and death moments when you need somebody else. At the same time, because police officers are not trained in de-escalation, or not trained well in de-escalation, they often don’t know how to work with survivors in a way that’s empowering for them that’s not one more method of disempowerment for them, not one more person in a power and control relationship, which is just like the relationship they’re trying to survive, right?

And that has a very different impact when you are calling for help and someone shows up who has more tools at their disposal beyond arrest and beyond law and order in the situation. There are many times when someone calls the police in a situation of family violence where they’re just wanting to de-escalate the situation and put in a pause, and that’s the only thing they can think to do. How great would it be if they could call for crisis response and de-escalation rather than have police show up, where oftentimes an arrest is made that nobody anticipated or wanted. They just wanted help with a really terrible situation that was happening at the moment.

MELINDA TUHUS: That was social work professor Amber Kelly. Barbara Fair is a retired licensed clinical social worker and a decades-long social and racial justice activist in Connecticut. Barbara, I’m really interested in your take on police – also known as school resource officers, or SROs – in the public schools.

BARBARA FAIR: I mean, until other kids – it wasn’t our kids – were going around shooting up schools and stuff, we never had all this security and zero tolerance. All this came out of other kids – white kids – doing these things. And so, like any law that they pass, black and brown kids are going to be the ones that suffer the most from the policy.

And that’s how all this got started anyway – treating our kids like criminals. And so, when I talk about defunding police, it’s about taking some of those millions of dollars they’re spending on them and instead do things that really work for our kids. Because if you look at it, police can’t solve the real problems in our community, like homelessness, addiction, mental illness, people coming out of prison, broken homes, intergenerational trauma – all of those things, police can’t do anything for all of that, but yet we rely on them.

I don’t know, I think we’re just so conditioned that the police is the resolve for everything that we rely on them for these things that they can’t do anything but arrest people. That’s all they can do at the end of the day, and it’s not helping. It’s just like we put the SROs in our schools; they were supposed to be a support for our kids, and what happened is that the juvenile justice system blew up as a result of having SROs in our schools because SROs, instead of helping our kids, were criminalizing their behavior and sending them into the system. So, that’s the main reason we don’t need them.

And when they talk about having social workers working with police, I don’t think that’s a good idea, mainly because just like a good person who goes into the police department, after you get in there then you start adapting to their culture, consciously or subconsciously, and their culture is not about caring and helping people in our community.

In our community the police is about enforcing the law. In white communities, it may be different. It may be about protecting and serving, but that’s not here in our community. So we don’t need them working with the police department because I think the best social workers can get in there, working with police side by side, they’re going to adopt that culture and they’re no longer going to be of service to our children.

For more information, visit the National Association of Social Workers at


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