Amid calls to defund U.S. policing, one idea has been gaining currency: Enlisting social workers as first responders, in place of or alongside police, for 911 calls related to mental health, substance abuse or homelessness.

By dispatching a team consisting of a medic, a social worker and in some cases a police officer, cities such as Eugene, Oregon; Denver; and Dallas are offering more appropriate, cost-effective help to people in crisis while reducing arrests, ER visits and violent confrontations.

While this approach has benefits, it does nothing to address the systemic injustices that have led protesters to call for a transformation of American policing. Nor does it reflect the fundamental purpose of social work: to address the deeper causes of social problems, in collaboration with communities in need — something that can happen only far upstream from a 911 call.

At the University of Washington School of Social Work, where I am dean, we are all too familiar with the impulse to call on social workers to manage, rather than prevent, crises. Time and again, social workers have been enlisted as a stopgap resource, plugged into crisis situations to smooth out the rough edges — or even carry out unjust policies.

In a particularly egregious historical example, social workers were enlisted to facilitate the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Their assignments included vetting, registering, “counseling” and organizing activities for the more than 120,000 people held for nearly three years in the so-called internment camps. 

Today, as the Black Lives Matter movement shines a spotlight on police brutality and as the COVID-19 pandemic puts health disparities caused by systemic racism into ever-sharper relief, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get both policing reform and community empowerment right.


BLM leaders make this point repeatedly, and our elected officials must listen. As BLM co-founder Alicia Garza said recently: “When we talk about defunding the police, what we are saying is invest in the resources that our communities need.” Indeed, every dollar saved through policing reforms must go toward addressing inequities in education, housing, health-care and mental-health services so communities have a better chance to thrive.

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. 

Our country’s history is littered with well-meaning but grossly underfunded efforts to redress inhumane policies. In the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of mental health patients were released from state-run institutions, with the stated intention of diverting them into more humane, community-based housing and treatment programs. The government succeeded in emptying the “asylums” but failed to adequately fund their replacement.

In the decades since, the legacy of this failure includes devastating rates of homelessness, substance abuse and a host of other social ills. Today, an estimated 37% of the U.S. prison population has a history of mental illness.

The original intentions behind decarcerating patients with mental illness in the 1960s were also undercut by President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Crime,” which diverted massive amounts of funding for his Great Society social-welfare programs to an increasingly militarized model of law enforcement.

At this critical juncture, our elected officials must commit to reversing these historic wrongs. Significant and sustained investment in communities is an essential part of that. In addition to a professional workforce dedicated to working alongside communities, what the field of social work can contribute is rigorously tested programs that support community mental health, healthy youth development and community decision-making.

This is the only way to achieve meaningful and lasting change. All we need now is the political will to embrace it — and fully fund it.