When Cities Replace Police with Social Workers

This story originally appeared on Route Fifty. It has been republished with permission.

In June, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced a plan to create a new, civilian-led department to handle 911 calls for people who need help because they are intoxicated, homeless, on drugs or in a mental health crisis. Instead of police responding to these calls, the city wants to create a new agency that will send out social workers, housing counselors and violence prevention specialists.

“We’ve placed more and more issues on the plates of officers who are not trained … to be a social worker, or to be an addiction counselor … when they’re just answering a call,” Keller said. “We should have trained professionals do this, instead of folks with a gun and a badge.”

Keller’s proposal comes at a time when activists across the country are widely calling for “defunding” the police, a process that many envision involves taking at least a portion of public safety dollars and investing them in alternatives to armed responses to community problems.

What Albuquerque could do has been tried out in several cities before—but may become more widely popular following the death of George Floyd and the significant momentum currently behind police reform initiatives. So far, proposals to create alternative public safety departments using social workers have appeared in cities like Los AngelesPortlandMinneapolisSan Francisco and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Sometimes referred to as “unbundling” the duties assigned to police officers, cities have a variety of examples to look to for alternative methods of handling low-level 911 calls. New Orleans last year started using a private auto assistance company to handle many minor traffic crashes. Seattle diverts people reported to police for sex work and low-level drug possession to personal case workers. Eugene, Oregon uses medics and crisis experts for calls relating to mental health issues.

The program in Eugene, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS, has been around for more than 30 years and handles about 20 percent of 911 calls, which officials say saves the city $8.5 million per year. Because of its successful track record, it’s become a model that many activists and city governments across the country point to as a goal.

Vinnie Cervantes, an organizer with the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, looked to CAHOOTS when his organization began pushing for an alternative to police a few years ago.

Since 2016, Denver police have been using a “co-responder” model that teams up a police officer and a behavioral health clinician to respond to calls about people experiencing mental health crises. But community activists like Cervantes wanted something more akin to the CAHOOTS model—one with no police.

In 2017, community groups held an event called “It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This,” to lay out their vision. 

“People accept policing as an inevitability,” Cervantes said. “So we had to ask the question, ‘How can we even start to think about a world without police?’ We presented the CAHOOTS model and people really liked it. The appeal of having a program rooted in community is that people trust it more.”

In early June, responding to years of community activism, Denver launched Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR. It’s still run through the police department, and funded by a sales tax passed in 2018, but no police respond to calls directed to STAR. The pilot has a single van and deploys a paramedic and a social worker on calls about people who need help with substance abuse and mental health problems in the downtown area of the city. 

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One of those social workers, Chris Richardson, said that having an EMT with him has already been “so helpful” in some situations involving people with acute alcohol withdrawal, where providing immediate medical care is crucial. In other situations, showing up without a police officer has proved to people that they are not in trouble, he said.

“We’ve talked to people who are suicidal, people who are homeless, and we let them know that we’re there for them,” he said. “There’s been some surprise that an official response came without police.”

Richardson, who also oversees the civilian side of the co-responder program, traveled to Eugene last year to study the CAHOOTS model before Denver launched STAR. That trip taught him that police being on low-level calls was “a misuse of resources,” but he still believes there are occasions where a police presence is necessary.

“They make sure the scene is safe for co-responders to do their jobs. It’s like yin and yang,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes. It takes a unique person who wants to be in social work within the policing system—finding them is like finding a leprechaun riding a unicorn. They don’t have to buy into everything policing stands for, but there can’t be animosity. It’s all about finding the right response for the right needs of the community.”

Whether or not to involve police in these alternative programs is a major focus of debate right now. Programs like CAHOOTS, which is run through a community clinic, are more rare than ones that include officers on calls, but the momentum to shift to a “no police” model is growing, said Amber Kelly, a professor of social work at Quinnipiac University.

“In most situations you need deescalation, not escalation,” she said. “When you have civilians working with police, oftentimes policing culture and practices trump all else. Having agencies separate from the police to deal with community problems makes more sense.”

However, social workers aren’t immediately ready to begin answering 911 calls, Kelly said. To create a “whole new role for social workers” there will have to be specialized training for crisis intervention, including teaching them how to de-escalate tense situations, work with people in active psychosis, and mediate conflicts. Social workers will also need to reckon with how they’ve upheld oppressive systems in the past and find ways to build community trust in the profession.

“Social workers have to get involved with communities in advocating for social, political, and economic change,” Kelly said. “We have to understand that there is no separation between individual symptoms and structural inequalities—so we have to be part of the solution to structural problems in order to be trusted.” 

Billy Bromage, a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale University, said that social workers could be just one part of a much broader solution that could include peer support workers who are in recovery for substance abuse themselves, community and faith leaders who know neighborhood dynamics, and those who have experienced police violence.

“Social workers are sometimes seen as ‘police-lite’ because we’re used to being in a position of power over people,” he said. “But it would be huge to have people who aren’t used to that power role. People who just have lived experience with these problems.” 

The argument for cutting the police out of many crisis situations is bolstered by some data analyzed by the New York Times that shows reports of violent crimes only make up around 1 percent of 911 calls in many major cities.

In a few jurisdictions that post online more comprehensive data, the analysis found police spent about 4 percent of their time on violent crime. Calls where people are more likely to just need services—like a tow truck, help getting to a domestic violence shelter or assistance with mental illness—make up a much more significant chunk of calls.

Cervantes said that it will be a challenge convincing police that they aren’t needed on many calls—especially if building up such a program run by nonprofits means redirecting police department funding to community organizations.

“I think there’s still a level of distrust that the community can handle this themselves. It’s almost territorial,” he said. “But anything that is an extension of law enforcement won’t be as effective. It risks replicating systemic problems in policing.”

“The argument for cutting the police out of many crisis situations is bolstered by some data analyzed by the New York Times that shows reports of violent crimes only make up around 1 percent of 911 calls in many major cities.” (Taymaz Valley / Flickr)

While nonprofit-run programs without law enforcement participation face an uphill battle, co-responder programs have generally received a positive response from police departments in many cities.

In Albuquerque, where the department is trying to implement federal court-ordered changes to curb excessive use of force, the police chief said he was “relieved” by the announcement about creating the new department.

The Denver Police Department did not respond to requests for comment, but Chief Paul Pazen said in town halls this month that he supports the expansion of the co-responder and STAR programs, and would be open to considering moving STAR out from under the police department entirely, but provided no further details.

Cervantes said he’ll keep working to make that happen, pushing Denver closer to a model like the one in Eugene.

“They have a community narrative there that they don’t have to call police for everything,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re working on it here.”

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems


Emma Coleman is the assistant editor at Route Fifty. Prior to joining Route Fifty, Emma was the senior communications manager and a policy fellow for New America’s Public Interest Technology initiative, where her research focused on data improvements to the reentry process for people returning to D.C. after incarceration. She holds a BA from Stanford University in international relations and comparative studies in race and ethnicity, and is originally from Chicago.