NASW calls for police reforms

Tory Russell, left, comforts Londrelle HallFerguson, Mo. (photo right), resident Tory Russell, left, comforts Londrelle Hall after Hall and another man ran from their home in Atlanta to a memorial in Ferguson on Nov. 23, more than three months after a black teenager was shot and killed there by a white police officer. It took Hall 20 days to make the run, which he did to raise awareness of the shooting. AP Photo

Following the St. Louis County grand jury decision in November not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., NASW issued a statement that it continues to urge “reforms that would help end the excessive use of police force.”

Protests and outbreaks of violence rocked the community of Ferguson after the Aug. 9 shooting death of Brown — an unarmed African-American 18-year-old — by Wilson, a white police officer. Protests erupted again in Ferguson, and in communities across the United States, after the grand jury’s decision Nov. 24 not to indict Wilson.

Rather than focusing on this sole situation, NASW’s position reflects concern about the broader and ongoing issues of police racial profiling and the way law enforcement officers interact with people living with disabilities and mental illnesses.

NASW’s statement says it supports reforms that could prevent unnecessary police shootings from occurring. These include:

  • National standards on the use of lethal police force.
  • National standards on how police handle persons living with mental illnesses or disabilities.
  • Training to help end police bias and racial profiling when dealing with people of color.
  • Making body cameras standard police equipment.

Since Brown’s death, NASW has also joined 1,300 other organizations in a letter to the Obama Administration calling for police reforms, and the association took part in a Twitter chat Oct. 9 about the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting. Several social work schools and other social work-related organizations collaborated on the chat.

Mel Wilson, manager of the NASW Social Justice and Human Rights department, represented NASW in the conversation.

“It was the first time we’ve done this as an organization on this particular issue,” Wilson said. “The primary message we wanted to get across in the Twitter chat was that NASW was concerned with the conditions related to the Ferguson shooting, and we wanted to be sure to articulate this concern to a broad audience.”

Wilson said participating in the chat also helped to dispel confusion and criticism about NASW’s stance on the shooting.

“I think we used this opportunity to interact with a diverse audience and let them know that NASW is — and always has been — actively involved, through coalitions, on issues concerning the protection of social justice in all communities,” Wilson said.

Some of Wilson’s tweets from the chat were “NASW will do a follow-up brief that includes recommendations to avoid future Fergusons,” and “Take time to read NASW Social Justice Brief on Ferguson. It calls for comprehensive police reforms.”

In the past five years, the country has seen several dramatic and tragic incidents that have brought into question the use of force — especially deadly police force — against people of color, according to the NASW Missouri chapter.

This issue is important for the profession, which has a long history of working to end all vestiges of institutional racism and racial disparities, including in law enforcement.

“The conversations that the social workers are having in St. Louis are not so much focused on racism, but unification, acceptance and healing,” said NASW-Missouri Executive Director Tabitha Overly.“I’m not saying racism is not an issue, but it is not coming across as the St. Louis focus. It is, though, for everyone else across the country.”

In its statement on the Ferguson grand jury decision, NASW also urges the public to use peaceful means to improve relations between communities and law enforcement. NASW also encourages members and the social work community to support activities and organizations that are active in bringing about police reforms.

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