Social Worker Instead of Cops? Watch this video, then decide.

By Scott Buhrmaster  |   Mar 9, 2021

The concept of having social workers respond to emergency calls involving mentally ill subjects is—excuse the understatement—complex.

These are highly unpredictable contacts often characterized by rapidly changing levels of confrontational behavior and overall threat to the responding parties which until now, in some places, have always been law enforcement officers.

They can involve irrational thinking, paranoia, explosive anger and a level of fearlessness on the part of the subject that diminishes if not completely eliminates concern for their own safety.

One of the most difficult challenges is trying to determine how high a risk actually exists in the situation at the point the call is received.

For example, if 911 received a call from a parent who said their son was experiencing issues related to OCD and depression, would that initially be considered a high-risk call requiring a police response? Or would most think it was a low-risk call that required a social worker to respond and deal with the individual in a manner that would surely calm him and avoid any need for a forceful response?

That’s an extremely tough call. A recent encounter between Hollister, CA officers and 29-year-old Brandon Hill testifies to that.

Note: As you watch the body cam footage of the encounter, pay close attention to how the officers speak to Brandon. Could they have spoken to him differently? Could they have calmed him down? Were they escalating the situation?

Take a look at the footage, then we’ll discuss:

Here are some questions that surface after watching this video:

When the mental illness issues involved were initially identified as OCD and depression, what would your thoughts be relative to the level of risk prior to being on scene and actually dealing with the subject?

Would a solo social worker response to this call be appropriate?

Would an integrated social worker/law enforcement response be appropriate? How would you know?

If a social worker did respond with law enforcement, would that add a layer of complexity that could make the situation even more dangerous? Who would decide when—and whether–the social worker should engage? Who would decide when it was time for the social worker to disengage? Is the social worker a distraction for the officers who now have to pay attention to the positioning and protection of yet another person?

After listening to the two officers talk to Brandon, do you think there’s something a social worker would say that would have better results? If so, what? Would a social worker have the ability to deescalate this situation even though these officers couldn’t?

To complicate the equation even more: Does the presence of officers, armed, sometimes cause an agitated person to arm themselves?

Consider logistics and availability of personnel. If calls related to mentally ill individuals are unpredictable—meaning they could be low-risk and harmless, high-risk and dangerous or switch quickly from one to the other—it would stand to reason that social workers would need to respond to every such call, lest they miss an opportunity to prevent a shooting or other use of force that some may believe was avoidable? Is that even possible?

Are police put in an increasingly no-win situation when they respond to a call involving a mentally ill person without a social worker on site and they’re forced to shoot him? What are the odds there will be people, perhaps many people, who read headlines like, “Police Shoot 29-Year-Old Man Suffering from OCD and Depression” and immediately believe the shooting was avoidable and the direct result of not having a social worker on site?

On the surface the concept of involving trained mental health professionals in situations where mental illness plays a role does seem to make sense. And it does. And most police officers, as well as Calibre Press, agree that social workers should be responsible for many people suffering emotional breaks. But there seems to be a major piece of the puzzle missing: REALITY.

Every police officer knows that dealing with a mentally ill individual can be—and often IS—extremely difficult and potentially dangerous for scores of reasons. The core issue here is the reality that these calls can go sideways in the blink of an eye.

Unfortunately, there are many out there who see things in black and white when it comes to this topic. They see it as simple. Is the call related to a mentally ill person? Then send a social worker. Simple, right?

Never mind that this individual may be armed (and you don’t know it), may be violent (and you haven’t seen that side of him yet…but it’s coming), may be irrational and may not be responsive to deescalation efforts (in fact, he may very quickly ramp up his level of aggression before you have a chance to realize you’ve got no chance of talking him down.)

The ultimate reality is that in many cases, people’s lives are at stake when it comes to these calls; the subject, the officers and any involved social workers. Underestimating the complexity of theses encounters and trying to offer a simplified answer as to who is best qualified to respond is complicated and can have catastrophic results.

One thing is for sure. If it’s decided across the country that social workers will increasingly take the lead on responding to all calls involving the mentally ill instead of, or before, police, at least two questions need to be asked and answered.

First, how many people with sociology or psychology degrees are interested in going into homes during an acute event—acute enough for the family to call 911—unarmed and tactically untrained?

Second, there will have to be study on how the responses went. For the people in crisis as well as the social workers.

THOUGHTS? COMMENTS? We’d love to hear them. Please e-mail us at: [email protected]

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Scott Buhrmaster

Scott Buhrmaster

Scott Buhrmaster is the CEO of Calibre Press, one of the leading law enforcement training and information providers in the industry. Scott’s tenure began in 1989 when he originally signed on with Calibre where he was involved in the creation and marketing of the organization’s popular training courses and award-winning textbooks, videos and online publications. At core, he was involved with the overall enhancement and expansion of the organization and he proudly continues that work today.