Social Work experts say larger conversation needed before defunding the police

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As calls to defund police are growing louder, police departments aren’t the only ones suggesting changes shouldn’t be rash. FOX13 spoke to two social work experts who said a lot of conversations need to take place before that happens.

Social workers told FOX13 they would be happy to have the extra money, but not at the expense of putting additional responsibility on an already overburdened system.

Susan Neely-Barnes is the Director of the University of Memphis School of Social Work.

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“There are shortages in terms of the number of social workers in the United States,” she said.

With calls to defund the police, that money along with several police responsibilities would fall to social workers, a group struggling to manage the workload already placed on them.

“The system of social welfare is broken,” Neely-Barnes said. “We have a fragmented social welfare system. Because of that, a lot of things fall through the gaps. A lot of systems are badly underfunded.”

She said while she would welcome additional funding for social work, it needs to be part of a broader conversation. Her colleague, Melissa Hirschi agrees.

“As a collective, what is going to work for our community? Because what works for Florida may not be the best for our system,” said Hirschi.

Hirschi, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis School of Social Work, said we as a society need to value mental health. She said right now we expect the police to do the job of mental health professionals, while also being the ones tasked with protecting the public and defending themselves.

“However we ended up where we are, the police have also become our frontline mental health workers. That is not ideal,” said Hirschi. “If we as a society are expecting police to fulfill this type of role, they need the skills and the tools to be able to do that. But we still need mental health services that people can access.”

These experts said this process isn’t going to happen overnight and it shouldn’t. In a perfect world, cops and social workers agree – police wouldn’t be defunded – their funding could be used on community policing and training – while additional funding would be set aside to help ease the burden on social workers and prepare them to take on the responsibilities currently carried by officers.

They’re hopeful social workers get a seat at the table for any upcoming discussions.