Social Work’s Role in Promoting Resilient Communities through Partnership with State and Local Police by Terry Carrilio, Ph.D. and David Eisenberg, Ph.D.

The “securitized” relationship between police and disenfranchised communities has been highlighted recently by the unrest in Ferguson, MO and the polarized public debates about race, oppression, police tactics, and social exclusion. Social work, which has historically advocated for disenfranchised populations and promoted community resiliency, is uniquely placed to work with local communities and police agencies to both mitigate the factors that result in community violence and promote community resilience.

  • Sources of violence in communities are multi-factored and dynamic, and include the interaction of individual, context, and situation.
  • Individuals and groups who perceive themselves as oppressed and disenfranchised are susceptible to choosing extreme means that can be socially or personally destructive  in order to  meet their human needs for identity, meaning, and efficacy.
  • Post 9/11 “securitization” of policing and budget cuts have reduced support for community oriented policing, and increasingly reduced the budgets of social service organizations that mitigate individual and community vulnerabilities.

Policing in the United States is not bound by an overarching national framework or philosophy, but rather, is determined by state and local law, custom, history, and financial resources. Over the last 50 years, three major voluntary federal transformative efforts have influenced some police agencies, with the result that today US policing falls on a continuum from authority-based incident responsiveness to highly service oriented community engagement.

  • The 1968 Safe Streets Act created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), the first comprehensive federal program designed to provide funding to States for crime reduction. Until 1982, LEAA supported the development of voluntary policing standards and the application of technology, such as bulletproof vests, to law enforcement.
  • Partly in response to civil unrest in the 1960’s and 70’s, the Department of Justice instituted support for Community Oriented and Problem Oriented Policing, developing new strategies for tackling community crime problems while encouraging police partnerships with other community organizations including schools, hospitals, social service agencies and citizens’ advocacy groups.
  • After 9/11, as a nation we became preoccupied with national security, which had a profound impact on the way that police departments viewed their missions. Concurrently, public awareness of mass shootings after Columbine hastened the “securitization” of departments, and their adoption of military-influenced tactical units, hardware, and strategies.

Social work has a historical mission to both serve vulnerable and disenfranchised populations and to promote social justice and community resilience. Social work has a unique opportunity to apply its understanding the interaction of the person in his (her) environment and its historical skills in community organization conflict resolution, and dialogue to work towards a fourth transformation in policing—one we’ve tentatively named “Justice Policing”—that could enhance the effectiveness of police departments and increase community resilience by assuring increased inclusion of oppressed and disenfranchised populations.

Social workers, both working on the streets with officers, participating in community problem solving efforts, and through serving within departments in complementary roles, could offer insights into the dynamics and effects of historical oppression, institutional discrimination, and social exclusion. Such insights, paired with existing police community-oriented engagement and problem solving strategies could help communities to improve life opportunities, safety, and justice for all members.


Terry E. Carrilio, PhD LCSW is an Emeritus Associate Professor of Social Work, San Diego State University, and a former Senior Intelligence Analyst assigned to the National Counterterrorism Center.  David M. Eisenberg PhD LCSW is a Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Veterans Administration and retired as a Patrol Sergeant from the Chula Vista Police Department after 16 years of municipal police service.