Social workers have roles in community policing efforts

female cop being hugged by several girls

Officer Jackelyn Burgos interacts with children at a public school in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority)

A 15-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder became lost in Naperville, Ill., in July. Her parents had been working with her, and she had successfully been going outside alone, walking up and down the block where she lives. She had done well with that and wanted to walk around the block by herself.

She either took a wrong turn or walked farther than she had planned, but she did not come back, and a missing-child call came in to the Naperville Police Department, said Police Social Worker Jamie Horner, MSW, LCSW, CADC, one of two police social workers in the department’s social services unit.

Almost the entire group of officers and detectives responded, Horner said. While the girl’s father stayed at home, her mother drove around looking for her. Some of the officers went to the home, and the others—working with the dispatch center—searched on foot and drove around in cars and on ATVs as they all sought to find her.

“My sergeant said ‘I’m going to go look for her,’” Horner said. “I wanted to help, so I started texting him on how to react to someone with autism: Do this, don’t do that. You need a much different response to a person with autism. Even getting her into a car could be a challenge. Minutes later, I heard over the radio that his unit had found her.”

When the sergeant returned to the station, Horner congratulated him and said he had done a great job directing someone with autism. He said her directions really helped him and she made him realize he had to step back and look at the whole picture.

“That was a really neat thing to hear from him,” Horner said. “It’s exciting when something positive happens from something so scary. That was a really, really good day.”

Social workers like Horner are filling an important role, whether they work as police department social workers as part of community policing efforts or operate independently but work in conjunction with officers as they treat young victims and witnesses of abuse and violence.

The push by President Obama to expand community policing could make social workers even more essential to the process.

Community policing is a philosophy, not a program, said Robert Chapman, deputy director of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, a component of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Established in 1995, the office is responsible for advancing community policing nationwide, it states on its website at

Since then, it has invested more than $14 billion to advance community policing.


There are three components to community policing: community partnerships, organizational transformation and problem solving, the COPS Office publication “Community Policing Defined” states.

Collaboration between law enforcement agencies and the people and organizations they serve means officers and citizens get to know each other so they can work together to define and solve problems in their own communities.

Officers can get out of their cruisers and walk or work on a bicycle patrol, which allows them to meet, talk to and interact with those on their beat.

Law enforcement agencies also can sponsor citizen police academies so residents can learn how

officers are trained, why they do what they do, and what the local laws and rules governing those officers are. And increased communication means some problems can be solved proactively,

before they escalate and necessitate an emergency response and possible arrest.

Agencies can develop their own programs that fit the needs of their communities. One example, which involved police social workers Horner and Eirene Leventis, LCPC, CDVP, NCC, who works alongside Horner, is a program recently launched by the Naperville department that connects opioid abusers with help in the community, Leventis said.

Robert Chapman

“Anyone addicted to prescription opioids, or even heroin, can walk in, hand in any drugs and get into a treatment program within hours,” she said. “It connects opioid abusers with help in the community.”

No charges are involved in the program, which was set up because of an increase in opioid abuse, she said.

“It diverts people from the criminal justice system and gets them the treatment they need,” Leventis said. “It’s coordination of care and cooperation between the department, the court system and individuals. It’s really a collaborative effort. So far, we’ve had 10 people placed in treatment centers and more than 50 phone calls. That’s definitely a success.”

It’s difficult to track the number of law enforcement agencies that use community policing, because it’s a complex philosophy, Chapman said.

“There’s no typical or one-size-fits-all model,” he said. “It’s partnership, problem solving and organizational transformation. It fits the needs and desires of each community. And because of that, measuring (the number of agencies) is difficult.”

“It’s also the paradigm for 21st Century policing. Police have to work with their communities to be co-producers of public safety,” he said. “They need to build trust with their communities. When they establish true partnerships, it does build trust and respect. It’s good policing, and it’s where best practices are heading.”

Community policing is “apolitical,” and has the support of President Obama along with other presidents before him, Chapman said.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was created by Executive Order on Dec. 18, 2014. It released an initial report to President Obama in March 2015 and a final report on May 18, 2015.

The 11-member task force met seven times and held listening sessions across the country, ultimately meeting with more than 100 individuals from diverse stakeholder groups—law enforcement officers, community members, civic leaders, advocates, researchers, academics and others—to study the problem from all perspectives, the final report’s summary states. (The report is available here.)

There are approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide. Since each state writes its own laws and regulations, and most have their own law enforcement training academies that teach recruits to operate within the laws of that state, there can be no federal laws or mandates on things like use-of-force guidelines.

The task force issued a follow-up, a one-year progress report, available here, which was published this year and notes the involvement and actions taken by law enforcement agencies around the country.

Chapman said the report represents “the fact that community members and even law enforcement agencies and officers are clambering for this information.”

When President Obama announced he was creating the task force, a White House statement noted, “Recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and around the country have highlighted the importance of strong collaborative relationships between local police and the communities they protect.”

Shootings and Unrest

Eirene Leventis

Protests broke out in 2014 and gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement after a white officer on Aug. 9 shot and killed Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, Mo., who was black and unarmed.

Eric Garner, 43, of New York, also a black man, died July 17, 2014, on Staten Island after being placed in a chokehold, a tactic that had been banned for years by the New York City Police Department.

Grand juries declined to indict officers in both cases. Later that year, a white officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black youth who was playing with a toy gun on a playground in Cleveland on Nov. 22. A grand jury also declined to indict that officer.

This year, several police officers were targeted and killed.

In July, 12 police officers were shot, five of them fatally, in Dallas by lone gunman Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old a black man.

After a lengthy standoff, Johnson refused the offer to not be harmed if he gave up. Police then sent in an armed bomb-disposal robot and set off a blast, killing Johnson.

Just days later, on July 17, three officers were fatally shot and three others wounded in Baton Rouge, La. That gunman, Gavin Long, 29, also was black and acted alone. Police killed him at the scene.

That shooting came 12 days after police in Baton Rouge fatally shot and killed Alton Sterling, 37, a black man, while he was pinned to the ground.

On July 18, the White House released an open letter to law enforcement from President Obama. In it he wrote:

“As you continue to serve us in this tumultuous hour, we again recognize that we can no longer ask you to solve issues we refuse to address as a society. We should give you the resources you need to do your job, including our full-throated support. We must give you the tools you need to build and strengthen the bonds of trust with those you serve, and our best efforts to address the underlying challenges that contribute to crime and unrest.”

Good Policing

Community policing policies, Chapman said, can help in all contemporary issues, including collaborative reform, critical responses to protests and mass demonstrations as well as fighting terrorism.

“The premise is really the same,” he said. “Good policing involves getting to know the community. You tap into the community and understand their perspective; they can be a partner in crime reduction. They can serve as a source for police in times of crisis. Those are all foundations of community policing that apply to any situation.”

Community policing and social work also have a strong connection, Chapman said.

“Any time you’re dealing with a victim or an offender, it’s a pretty good bet there’s going to be a nexus between police and social work,” he said.

Police Social Work

Being a police social worker means wearing “a lot of different hats,” Horner said. But their main responsibility is to help community members.

“The police department officers respond during a crisis,” she said. “Our officers do a fine job of eliminating the danger and risks. Once they leave, then I come in to help (those involved), guide them, arrange social services for them and support them.”

Besides acting as liaison between citizens and the police department, which includes providing 24-hour crisis assistance to officers, Leventis said her relationship with the department’s staff is important.

“There’s the emotional survival of the department’s first responders, especially in light of recent events,” she said. “Every one of them looks out for each other. In this blue family, no one fights alone—it includes everyone who works within the police department.”

That can include working directly with a single officer to program development for the entire force on how to respond to a specific need, Horner said.

When asked what an average day is like, she laughed.

“I love this about my job: One of my favorite things is there’s no such thing as an average day,” Horner said.

Leventis said a typical day usually includes following up on various police reports, including violent crimes, trauma incidents, mental health concerns, juvenile problems, family conflicts, substance abuse and senior services.

There also are many citizens who walk in or call seeking information about community services and follow-up calls to people who officers have already talked to, Horner said.

toni Bankston

And they sometimes go out with an officer or a chaplain, Leventis said.

“In this position, you really have to expect the unexpected,” she said, “because a typical call can lead to something unexpected.”

The majority of cases they handle require follow-ups, Horner said.

“We usually talk to somebody at least twice, if not more,” she said.

Follow-ups sometimes are phone calls, Leventis said.

“Sometimes there’s a home visit,” she said. “There’s nothing more important than seeing a person in their own environment. We just learn so much about their situation.”

Leventis said in one month they can be assigned between 75 and 150 cases from police reports to follow up on.

“Some have or can lead to multiple people who need resources or follow-ups,” she said. “Out of 10 cases, about six need follow-ups—and it’s not going to be just one call. There’s never a dull moment.”

Violence Fallout

While police social workers can face any type of problem, other social workers may focus on one aspect of treatment — like helping children who have been traumatized by violence, whether personal or community-wide.

That’s what Toni Bankston, LCSW, BACS, Diplomate of CSW and executive director of the Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center, and her team of nine social workers do.

In August, they were preparing to work with some new youngsters—a small group of boys and girls who are the children of law enforcement officers who were killed or injured in the July 17 shootings.

The center handles approximately 500 new cases every year.

When children are traumatized, “they need immediate crisis care,” Bankston said.8

They need to be provided with information that’s accurate; they need reassurance that they’re safe; they need a routine, like going to bed at the same time every evening or going back to school where there is structure and routine; and they need a means to express their thoughts and feelings about what’s happened, she said.

Miriam Nisenbaum

“Every child is unique, and how they need to express themselves in the aftermath of a crisis is different,” Bankston said. “They need a tool kit.”

Some children need to talk things out, express how they feel. Others are mute, and movement, art, music or yoga can help them, she said.

“This is important because crises and/or trauma affect both the mind and the body,” Bankston said.

Getting them outside—surrounded by nature—can help both children and adults feel grounded, and it can be comforting in a time of crisis, she said.

In working with children who have been exposed to some kind of trauma, the center always works with the families and it always conducts bio, psycho and social assessments of the child with the families.

“These are traditional things social workers do,” Bankston said. “Because we screen all our children, we have stats. About 70 percent of children who come through have complex trauma.”

“They may come in today because of sexual abuse, but they also may have witnessed domestic violence or have a parent in jail. Eighty-five percent are in the poverty level, and about 60 percent are African-American. The common link is trauma.”

The skills they teach children “are pretty universal and help all kinds of trauma,” she said.

Those include meditation; mindfulness; guided imagery; yoga; art—expressive art or art therapy; journaling; movement and exercise; and music.

The center also uses trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and a lot of groups.

“These skills give them ways to affect trauma in the mind and body,” Bankston said. “It’s very empowering as well.”

Giving children true information along with skills can help prevent them from using their imagination to fill in gaps of missing information — which can be frightening, she said. “Let’s forget about sweeping things under the rug.”

Baton Rouge does not have police social workers, but the clinicians at the Advocacy Center work with local officers. When a child is interviewed at the center, a social worker and a police officer are both in the room, Bankston said.

“I like it,” she said. “It’s a unique way to do social work. When law enforcement, crime victims and parents come together, there’s a common goal. And they really see each other as human beings.”

Bankston has a brief video online that shows the forensic and healing activities of the center.

Community Policing Techniques

Law enforcement agencies in many states have adopted community-policing techniques, and some, like Texas, are using social workers to implement and run some of the programs involved.

“Texas is really big, and a lot of the major cities now have some form of community policing,” said Miriam Nisenbaum, LMSW, ACSW and executive director of the NASW Texas Chapter. “There are a lot of various versions around the state.”

In Dallas, “Chief (David) Brown has been instrumental in giving it a lot larger role. There are substations, storefronts, cops walking the beat. One of the most compelling statistics around community policing is officer-involved shootings. That’s gone down dramatically. It’s his leadership philosophy, and it’s pretty remarkable.”

Dallas officer-involved shooting information is posted online in a graph form that not only has the number per year but also the case numbers, dates, locations and what happened to the person the officer shot at—whether they were injured, deceased or it was a “shoot and miss.”

That graph shows in 2012, there were 23 officer-involved shootings. Last year, there were 11. Through March of this year, there was only one.

In Harker Heights, near Fort Hood in the Killeen/Temple area, police Chief Mike Gentry pitched a healthy homes program, Nisenbaum said.

“He hired trained social workers to work with the police department to link people with community resources,” she said. “They’ve really done a lot of work in those areas. Working with social workers frees up the police officers to do the police work.”

And of the approximate 690 families they served from 2012 through last year, 591 families did not require later intervention, Nisenbaum said.

Harker Heights also has regulations against bias-based profiling written into its policy and procedures manual.

In Houston, a caseworker rides along when police answer calls involving mental health issues, so people are diverted to treatment instead of being arrested.

Austin police have a social worker who does outreach to the homeless population, and Arlington has a new crisis response team that includes a social worker and trained volunteers, Nisenbaum said.

“A lot of people have the idea that Texas is the wild, Wild West, but we also have some areas that are innovative, where progressive action is being taken, where progress is being made,” she said.

Social Work Roles

In Florida, there are social workers in police departments in Tallahassee, the Miami-Hialeah area, and in many of the state’s public schools, said Jim Akin, ACSW, and executive director of the NASW Florida chapter.

They work with arrested juveniles, in domestic violence intervention and prevention, and with school police resource officers, he said.

Florida State University has an institute for family violence studies, where they put together a partnership between law enforcement and social workers, Akin said.

“I think it’s an appropriate role for social workers,” he said. “We have social workers in correctional institutions, and we have social workers who work with police on drug, alcohol and mental health issues.”

“One of our biggest challenges in the future is how can we work with law enforcement on mental health issues,” Akin said.

Joel L. Rubin, MSW, ACSW, CAE, the executive director of NASW-Illinois, sees victim assistance as one of the most important roles for social workers in police departments.

“Obviously, we have the training for that,” he said. “Social workers also do a lot of training for police officers as well. I think the more we have that type of training across the nation, the better equipped law enforcement agencies will be.”

Another important area is crisis intervention teams, Rubin said.

“The CIT program is a model for policing that brings together law enforcement agencies, mental health providers, emergency rooms—everybody working together on these kinds of intervention teams,” he said. “I think social workers have the training—especially clinical social workers—to assist law enforcement agents, because a lot of the time they’re going to be first responders to these (types of calls).”

“It’s better to have social workers involved, helping in training, to make sure law enforcement officers understand the basic signs of someone’s mental issues and how to deal with that.”

In light of the recent shootings, Rubin said he thinks “all groups need to come together now to help equip all law enforcement professionals in how they carry out their duties.”

“We need to work on that—whether it’s the training side, the policy side or gun control laws,” he said. “That’s where social work comes in as well. This is a social justice issue, and this issue involves what social work is all about.”

Nisenbaum agrees.

It always starts with understanding people’s ingrained ideas on things like mental health, race and ethnicity, she said.

“Demagogues demonize people in our society,” Nisenbaum said. “That doesn’t move the conversation forward. It moves the conversation backwards.”

“Our profession could be instrumental to be a convener, not only of conversations between the community and law enforcement, but also we can be the ones that call for action. Our roots are in community organizing and advocacy and working for social justice. Because of that, we not only have the opportunity but also the obligation of pushing this issue to action.”

Whenever a crime happens, there always is a victim, and social workers step up to help them, Akin said.

“What happened in Sanford with Trayvon Martin, the Orlando shootings, all of these things,” he said. “To me, the role of social workers here goes back to community organizing, bringing people together—law enforcement, religious organizations, human services—so people can sit down and start having conversations.”

“Communications have to be established between police departments and the various communities they serve so communities can understand what police do and so police know the people in their community.”

The Florida Chapter has plans to help unite communities on a local level. A panel discussion in the Daytona area was in the works for late August involving police, religious leaders and community members, Akin said.

“We’re setting up a model, and we’ll see how that works,” he said. “We’re going to start having these conversations. It’s a real role that social workers can help in. Building trust, building relationships in general— that’s something I believe social workers can do very well.”