Cop as social worker: An unfair standard?

More and more, police officers are being put into the role of these two types of interventional services


By Gregory N. Bogosian

This article is provided by Blauer Manufacturing and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Police1.

How many of your calls now involve some form of intervention that traditionally has been handled by social work or mental health professionals in the past? Half? Three quarters? More and more, police officers are being put into the role of these two types of interventional services, either out of convenience, due to a lack of services available, or from a misplaced sense that they “should” be the ones to handle those incidents. As a result, many in the public are now shocked when law enforcers act as law enforcers should, consistent with their training — and not as if they were a mental health or social worker. Unfair? You bet. So why is it happening?

Well, We Wanted You to Do Something

Time and again, we are called to scenes to restore order — but not always in the sense that we used to, which is to stop a crime in progress or otherwise intervene in a criminal activity. Increasingly, we are sent out because of a failure of individuals to be able to manage a crisis of some variety, at the point at which their capacity to cope has exceeded their ability to do so.  Obviously, that point varies from person to person, and so we find ourselves dispatched to things ranging from a child refusing to obey their parent all the way up to the EDP who can’t be “dealt with” because they are outside of the plane of rational thought.

As a result, the expectations of those who call upon us are sometimes that we will simply pick up where they left off, and carry things through to a conclusion that they as civilians would have reached had they been able to. Sometimes they expect that we will “arrest away” their problem by removing the person. Other times they may believe that we are going to simply cure the problem by showing up, and don’t want us to do anything at all. The point is, many times they already have an idea of what they think “should” happen when they call, and when it doesn’t match up with the reality of what we actually do, we start to see the phenomenon of increased complaints, public spectacle via the media for reasonable enforcement actions, and the other shifts which now harangue our ability to do our jobs effectively.

We Didn’t Want You to Do That

To a point, our actions have always been those of community caretakers, especially if we do things responsibly and with an eye toward fairness and discretion where needed. But at some point in many calls, the need to act beyond that capacity, in other words to take enforcement action, comes up and when we fail to take such action, it can prove harmful or fatal for us. That capacity to take action is why we are screened as carefully as we are, and why our training is so deliberately conducted when we first become law enforcement officers — to ensure that we will take the proper course of action when needed (insofar as humanly possible) to preserve life, liberty, and property.

Lately, we are seeing that the set of expectations that the public has, outlined in part above, is being used as the measuring stick by which our actions are judged. Instead of an objective look at the overall circumstances of a scenario, and the actions which took place as a result, one aspect of a situation is highlighted and used as if it existed in isolation — without consideration, oftentimes, as to what a reasonable officer would have done in a similar situation.

We’ve seen this time and again over the last few months: a SRO is shown physically removing a student from her seat after she actively resists him (which is within the continuum of force).  In that circumstance, the SRO was called into a situation which normally would have been handled by the school, but was expected to act as a law enforcer –using their definition of the concept, not the one which is the actual truth of being a law enforcer.

Another situation had a man who was emotionally disturbed point a weapon at officers, upon which he was promptly shot.  Community members almost instantaneously protested the event as a “police killing” (notice how that phrase has now entered the common lexicon?), even though within common sense, let alone policy, officers had the right and the duty to protect their lives and those of others by stopping the threat of lethal force with which they were presented?  Again, however, the public and media acted as if they expected officers to somehow be able to “talk down” someone for whom the option of talking down had reached an immediate and decisive end.

We Wouldn’t Have Done It That Way

There’s also a lot of after-the-fact analysis which has happened with these incidents, which trickles down into our everyday work as well. Judgments based upon the reasonableness of a LEO’s actions are now taken in the context of whether or not they would have been right if the officer knew the full history of that individual’s entire life — instead of the short period of time in which that action was necessary based upon a need to intervene. It doesn’t matter if someone was “turning their life around” if, in the moment of their action, they made a choice which necessitated an officer protecting themselves or someone else by using reasonable force.

Simply put, a lot of people don’t like the fact that we sometimes must use force, or arrest someone, in order to perform our jobs as they were designed to be performed. The concept of their being a time when talk is no longer enough is foreign to many, unfortunately, and true conflict oftentimes falls into that category. Ironically, some recognition of the fact that a situation has escalated to that point comes into their decision to call us in the first place — so why are they surprised when it takes more than just talk to resolve it? In some cases, we may be able to talk through it where they could not, based upon our training, but not always, and the expectation should not be that we can somehow influence everyone through words alone.

Overall, the truth is that we do play the role of social worker and mental health professional as a component of what we do as law enforcers, but only just that: a component. We should not be held to the limitations of those roles when we are sworn to do more where necessary, and the time has long since passed that the recognition of true reasonableness from the eyes of a law enforcement professional is taken into account when deciding whether or not the actions we took were needed to preserve order, and protect those whom we have literally taken an oath to defend. We are, after all, out to preserve the rights of all individuals to life, liberty, and happiness, not take them away — but the point at which someone’s actions impede the ability of another to enjoy those same rights is the point at which a just law enforcement action becomes both necessary and critical to a civilized society.

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