In October 2016, on the Muckleshoot Native American reservation in Washington State, police fatally shot Renee Davis, a 23-year-old tribal member. She was five months pregnant. The police were sent to her house after her boyfriend expressed concerns about Ms. Davis being suicidal and had asked them to conduct a “welfare check.”
In Chamblee, Georgia, on March 9, 2015, police shot and killed Anthony Hill, a 26-year-old African American veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Hill, who had post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, was having a mental health crisis and was naked and unarmed at the time of his death.
Across the country, conversations about alternatives to policing are unfolding in real time. As social workers in Baltimore, we believe there is an urgent need to change the way our society responds to individuals experiencing mental health crises. Rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise, especially in young people, and this issue cannot wait: One in four victims of police shootings, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, is experiencing mental health crisis, with Black, Indigenous, and people of color disproportionately at risk of dying at the hands of law enforcement. For many of these people, police represent a threat of real harm. The presence of law enforcement is likely to escalate a psychiatric emergency.
Different jurisdictions within Maryland handle mental health crises in different ways, but the response almost always involves armed law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, social workers are mandated reporters under state law, which means we are required to intervene in situations where we suspect individuals are at risk of harming themselves or someone else. Typically, this means calling 911. But this status quo puts us in a terrible position: When 911 is the only option, but summoning police puts our clients’ lives at risk, what is the ethical choice?
To make matters worse, we risk our jobs if we choose not to involve police. This is because social workers who provide direct mental health care in the state are licensed by the Maryland Board of Social Work Examiners; just like with driving a car, a license to practice clinical social work can be revoked. Under current state law, choosing not to call the police during a mental health emergency could be considered a form of professional negligence.
To save lives, the law needs to change. The state must enumerate alternatives to policing in the case of mental health crises, allowing jurisdictions to develop ways to respond without armed law enforcement officers. The money to fund these alternatives should come directly from police budgets.
For inspiration, the state can look to the new Albuquerque Community Safety Team, which will respond to mental health crises with a team of social workers, housing specialists, outreach workers and violence prevention specialists; or the new Minneapolis Community Safety Team, which will include civil rights advocates and violence prevention specialists.
We are calling for an emergency legislative session to address this matter. Our state legislators must restrict police involvement in mental health crises and establish new crisis de-escalation and prevention services from an explicitly anti-racist framework. Further, the Maryland Board of Social Work Examiners should implement regulations protecting social workers who choose not to engage with law enforcement in matters of mental health. We invite the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Workers to stand with us on this issue.
Unfortunately, social work is a crucial tool of state power that has long been used to keep low-income people and people of color in a subordinate social position. Just as we reject this role in society, we reject the continued alignment of our profession with policing — a profession directly descended from the American projects of genocide and enslavement of nonwhite peoples.
Social workers must commit to an actively anti-racist framework in carrying out our professional duties at all levels, and we must unlearn approaches that increase harm to people of color. Changing how Maryland responds to psychiatric emergencies is an urgent step in the right direction.
Tavi Hawn, Doha Chibani and David Avruch are members of the Social Welfare Action Alliance — Baltimore, an intentional learning group of social workers committed to the process of dismantling institutional racism. They can be reached at email@example.com.