Seattle is rethinking policing by putting social workers on the daily beat

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A scene from Seattle. Credit: AP, via The Washington Post

The city of Seattle is trying out an unconventional way of policing: team up social workers with police officers to walk the beat together.

Offering social services to people on the streets rather than jailing them for minor violations is a classic idea that’s already deployed in Seattle, with very promising results. But what’s different about this particular initiative is the nature of the intervention and outreach. Every day, nonprofit social workers and police officers go on patrol as a tag-teaming unit—the cops as experts of the neighborhoods they’re walking and the social workers as experts who can connect the low-level offenders, often homeless people, to counseling, mental health aid, and other social services. That’s the kind of training not taught at police academies.

The costly, counterproductive alternative: continuing the cycle of arrest and release back into the streets, without long-term improvement in the person’s status or to public safety. As a staffer in the mayor’s office explained to KUOW.org:

“The reason they’re committing shoplifting and disorder on the streets is because of an addiction issue. They want to get help – and we can connect them with those services. That’s a fantastic resolution.”

Other cities are now studying the Seattle model for possible replication in their own communities. While the law enforcement system in America faces major challenges and criticisms that can’t be fixed with this one innovation, it’s a worthwhile step—that also prods police departments, policymakers, and voters to rethink the goals of policing and public safety. For more information, see “Why Seattle Cops And Social Workers Walk The Beat Together,” KUOW.org (2016) and “How Seattle is upending everything we think about how cops do their job,” The Washington Post (2015).