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Police Social Work
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Police Social Work
A Unique Area of Practice Arising from Law Enforcement Functions

George T. Patterson, Ph.D., ACSW, LCSW-R, Assistant Professor, Hunter College School of Social Work

July 2008

Television programs and motion pictures depict police officers involved in work that emphasizes the crime fighting tasks involved in law enforcement. Rarely are police officers portrayed performing their service related functions. In reality, law enforcement functions are comprised of tasks associated with crime fighting and those associated with the provision of services with the latter comprising 80% or more of patrol work. Known as the 80/20 rule, crime fighting (20%) and service related tasks (80%) are the two major functions of law enforcement.

Responding to homicides and robberies are examples of crime fighting functions. Even this police response could have a service function as victims may require crisis intervention, support and referrals. Examples of service related functions include responding to family disputes in which no crime has occurred and crisis intervention and mediation skills are required.

Whereas 80% or more of a patrol officer’s time is spent performing service related functions; law enforcement academy training tends to focus nearly 80% on crime fighting functions, training time allotted for the service related functions makes up approximately 20% of the training curriculum. Consequently crime fighting training overshadows what patrol officers spend the majority of their time actually doing in the field. Performing these two functions requires that law enforcement academy training emphasize communication skills, referrals, mediation, and conflict resolution, as well as criminal law, the use of weapons and defensive tactics.
Law enforcement functions support the practice of police social work

Given that 80% or more of patrol work is comprised of service related functions, opportunities exist for collaboration between police officers, social service agencies and social workers. Numerous police departments across the country have capitalized on these functions by employing civilian police social workers to assist police officers with the provision of services. The primary tasks of police social workers are to provide services to community residents such as crisis intervention, mediation, and referrals. Additional tasks may include the provision of training and consultation to police officers, and mental health services to police officers and their families.

The types of social problems that involve police social workers vary by police department but typically include mental health, domestic violence and juvenile delinquency.

The most important skills required by police social workers are the ability to understand law enforcement culture, procedures, and general orders; function effectively within a paramilitary law enforcement environment; and establish and maintain rapport with police officers and a diverse community.

Social work practice within police departments

Despite the law enforcement functions that support the practice of police social work, few police departments employ police social workers. For example, the New York City Police Department (NYPD), which is the largest police department in the United States, does not employ civilian police social workers. A review of the NYPD Careers (2008) website shows that civilian psychologists are employed to provide a variety of services to police officers such as counseling and evaluation following traumatic incidents. No listing for social workers appears on the website.

The most comprehensive police social work practice is found in Illinois and Wisconsin. Police social workers are employed within more than 35 police departments and provide a variety of services in response to domestic violence, elder abuse and mental health. A critical incident response is also provided (Services, 2007). These police social workers are also members of the Association of Police Social Workers (APSW). The mission of the APSW is to promote the development and practice of social work services that are provided within police department settings.

Vallianatos (2000) described the Youth Service Providers Network at the Boston Police Department model where social workers provide services to troubled youth. The model has been replicated in Albuquerque, N.M.

Issues in implementing police social work within police departments

Employing police social workers within police departments raises numerous issues that need to be considered. These issues include, but are not limited to: (1) securing and maintaining funding for sustainability; (2) the influence of civil service regulations that direct local government agencies such as police departments to require a MSW/BSW or an academic degree in a related field in addition to relevant experience; (3) police officers’ concerns about the safety of civilians; (4) the influence of police unions and perceptions that police officers are being replaced by social workers or that social workers are performing police functions; (5) police social work training and appropriate supervision; (6) the use of equipment such as police radios and unmarked police departmental vehicles by civilians; and (7) where to position police social workers within the various police department units.

Possibilities exist for developing new and exciting areas of police social work practice and numerous initiatives are underway that have contributed towards resolving a number of the above issues. Although more outcome studies are needed to assess the efficacy of police social work interventions, working through these issues can result in enhanced police social work practice.

Dr. Patterson served in the NYC Police Department as a visiting professor and curriculum advisor. He also served in the Rochester, NY Police Department as a counseling specialist. For more information on Police Social Work, see the entry written by Dr. Patterson in the new edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work.


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