Recently, police social workers have gotten increased attention in the news thanks to a bill introduced in New York City Council in December, 2017. The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Councilmember Mark Treyger, requires every police precinct in the city of New York to have a licensed clinical social worker on duty 24 hours a day.

If passed, this would mean that multiple advanced social workers (who have earned an MSW and obtained clinical licensure) must be on staff at each police precinct in the city. News outlets estimate that a few hundred new social workers would need to be hired.

What is Police Social Work?

Police Social Worker with Detective in Criminal Investigations DepartmentThe New York bill draws attention to a burgeoning field of social work practice arising from law enforcement functions – police social work. Police social workers, or those social workers employed as staff in police agencies, assist law enforcement professionals in the service-oriented functions of their job.

According to George T. Patterson, PhD, a social work professor who served in numerous police departments, “The primary tasks of police social workers are to provide services to community residents such as crisis intervention, mediation, and referrals.”

As Councilmember Mark Treyger stated in reference to his proposed legislation: “Police precincts see individuals with complex, pressing social and emotional needs every single day. Yet our city’s precincts often lack the resources to properly handle many of these circumstances.”

How can Police Social Workers Help?

Social workers can play a vital role within police precincts because many individuals who have contact with law enforcement also experience significant social and behavioral problems, such as substance and alcohol abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, child abuse/neglect, and neighborhood violence.

Online MSW Programs with Courses That Prepare You For a Career in Police Social Work:

  • Widener University’s online MSW’s core curriculum focuses on human behavior, social environments, economic justice and how to work with individuals, families and small groups. Electives available with focus on additions, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and child welfare.
  • Offered through the acclaimed Worden School of Social Service at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU), the online Master of Social Work degree program will prepare you to change the lives of children and families in need, while building the foundation for your own career in social service leadership and advanced direct practice.

Police social workers not only provide direct services to these individuals, but also train, treat, and collaborate with law enforcement officers. The Encyclopedia of Social Work states: “Additional functions of police social workers include training police officers in stress management, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse; providing consultation to police officers; and counseling police officers and their families.”

Having social workers on-hand at police precincts also enables law enforcement agencies to conduct their business more humanely and efficiently. In response to the bill, several law enforcement officers have noted that being able to refer cases to an in-house social worker would free them up to complete other duties.

Councilman Mark Treyger explains: “If, for example, police place a primary caretaker, including parents, under arrest, a social worker, rather than the officer, would be able to work expeditiously to ensure that the child is appropriately supervised.”

Challenges for Police Social Work

The field of police social work, and the specific legislation introduced in New York City Council, are not without their challenges. While police social workers can be of great benefit to citizens and law enforcement officers alike, many city and state governments are unable to secure or maintain funding for social workers to be on duty 24/7.

There are also challenges involved in ensuring social workers’ safety and maintaining clear boundaries between police work and police social work. Thorough evaluations of existing police social work initiatives might assist in resolving some of these issues to provide evidence-based guidance for best practices in police social work.