We Don’t Need Cops to Become Social Workers: We Need Peer Support + Community Response Networks

Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu
10 min readJun 6, 2020

CW: police, murder, psychiatric incarceration

Image Description: An aerial shot of protestors with various signs including “Black Lives Matter” and “Who do you call when cops murder?” Source: CNN article

“Replace the cops with mental health workers!” is a really well-intentioned statement, but the current mental health system is also a white-dominated, violent, coercive, and unaccountable structure that disproportionately harms people of color.” — Morgan M. Page

Image Description: Colorful pieces of paper with the Black power fist and the neurodivergent symbol on the wrist with text that states “Black Disabled Lives Matter.” There is a white piece of paper in the middle that says “Up to 50% of all people killed by US police are Disabled. To be Black and Disabled is a direct target.” Designed by Jen White Johnson

As a Disability Justice organizer, a person with lived experience of madness, Disability, and neurodivergence, and someone who has been incarcerated in psychiatric institutions — I wrote this piece to shed light on why we can’t reform cops into social workers, why we shouldn’t replace cops with mental health professionals, and why abolition + peer support is the only way forward. For many of our community members, it is dangerous and/or life-threatening to engage with police who are often the first responders for a mental health crisis (mentally ill/mad, Disabled, neurodivergent, and Deaf BIPOC account for over 50% of police deaths and mentally ill/mad, Disabled, neurodivergent, and Deaf folks are 16 times more likely to die in an encounter with police).

I am grateful to have learned + received knowledge from incredible Disabled organizers and scholars, such as Talila Lewis, Lydia X.Z. Brown, Alice Wong, Stacey Park, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Azza Altiraifi, Dustin Gibson, and so many more.

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psychiatric institutions are part of the carceral state

As Anne Thériault stated on Twitter:

“As someone who has spent time in a psychiatric ward, fellow white people suggesting that “mental health professionals” always respond to mental health crises in compassionate ways is… a lot. People within the system brutalize, coerce, and oppress. / But of course the problem is that once you are in the system as a patient, you become an unreliable narrator. The only way out is compliance. Otherwise there is so much harm, disempowerment and dehumanization that can be done to you “for your own good.” / And mental health care conversations are challenging because lots of people do have lived experience but there’s such a vast gulf between “went to my doctor for anxiety and got a prescription for Zoloft” and “watched my psych ward roommate get punched and put into restraints.”

This narrative and perspective is critical. While many folks who don’t have lived experience with these institutions may view them as positive places of healing and treatment, for “patients” (particularly BIPOC), this is far from the truth. It’s also important to recognize that psychiatric institutions are, in fact, part of the carceral state. This means that they are part of the many systems that function to: contain people, take away their locus of control, offer surveillance, isolate them from their communities, and limit their freedom.

Psychiatric institutions are also part of the prison-industrial complex. As Dan Berger discusses in Finding and Defining the Carceral State, when deinstitutionalization (shutting down state asylums) “happened” prisons “replaced” the asylum as the main site to contain and control Disabled and mentally ill people. As asylums closed, the jail system increasingly absorbed people from the former mental health system. Currently, the power of involuntary commitments travels from doctors to police (backed by prosecutors and judges).

In addition, the legal system criminalizes mental illness/madness, Disability and neurodivergence by making disorders or disruptions (perceived or imagined) punishable by imprisonment. Prisons and psychiatric institutions also produce mental illness/madness, Disability and neurodivergence, as a result of inhumane treatment, isolation or solitary confinement, medical force and coercion, restraint, etc. — all of which lead to more trauma.

social workers are also complicit with police + the carceral state

“Social workers can and do function like cops.” — K

Many social workers are gatekeepers to the very systems we are trying to abolish. As Heena Sharma said on Twitter, “seeing a lot of tweets about how cops should be replaced by social workers. but social workers are also part of policing, whether it’s in foster care, public schools, mental health institutions, or prisons. to abolish policing means to also abolish the medical industrial complex.” Another arena social workers function is in through Child Protective Services (CPS). Social workers are often responsible for evaluations lead to the separation of children from their parents, through racist decision making.

Image Description: Text on a banner that states, “who do you call when DCYF is abusing kids”

A few months ago, I went to a protest for the “Bring Us Home Campaign” organized by Parents Against DCYF in Rhode Island. This campaign seeks to expose the harm caused by Rhode Island Department of Children Youth and Families and mobilize to reunite children with their families. DCYF has been systematically abusing children both by removing them from families with no evidence of abuse (for example: when a Black mother seeks care for postpartum depression), and placing them in unsafe foster care situations. This culminated in the death of a Disabled girl in foster care June 2019 due to child abuse.

Can social workers do good work in communities? Sure. But again, this is not about a few bad apples. This is about the pervasive and unrelenting nature of systemic racism, ableism, classism, etc. — and upholding the values of a white supremacist, cis heteropatriarchy. Social workers are operating under the same racist and violent structures that are utilized to incarcerate, institutionalize, and strip freedoms away from Black and brown Americans. Who are social workers accountable to? Who do we call when social workers abuse their powers and privileges? How do we fight back when we have been declared unfit or incompetent or criminal?

The field of social work needs to be reconstructed, from a radical abolitionist framework. As it stands now, if we tried to replace cops with social workers, we would be trading in one system of policing for a different system of policing.

no more wellness checks

Time and time again, Disabled/mad/mentally ill/neurodivergent folks, especially BIPOC, have been whistleblowing about the violent dangers of calling 911 for wellness checks on people who may be in crisis. Calling 911 is always an escalation to what is happening, and there have been countless fatal outcomes.

Image Description: An image of Zachary Bear Heels

Zachary Bear Heels, an Indigenous man, was neurodivergent. He was taken by police after someone called about his “erratic behavior” on a public bus. Three years ago, in 2017, he died in police custody after being shocked 12 times with a taser and punched 13 times in the head. Zachary was experiencing a mental health crisis and was abused by the Omaha, NE Police Department.

  • Osaze Osagie, a neurodivergent man, was shot and killed in his own home in 2019 by police in State College, PA after his father called for police to perform a wellness check.
  • Pamela Turner, a Black woman having a mental health crisis, was killed by police in Texas in 2019.
  • Miles Hall, 23, was shot and killed by police after his mother called 911 for help in 2019.
  • Travis Jordan, 36, was killed by Minneapolis police in 2018 after his girlfriend called 911 afraid he was going to kill himself.
Image Description: A photo of Natasha McKenna

And the list goes on.

so, what do we do?

It’s time to rebuild from the ground up. Now is the time for radical imagination and visionary thinking. There is one framework that already has promising results, and has the potential to be hugely impactful on a large scale: peer support.

Peer support means that people who share aspects of identity or lived experience can offer culturally and socially competent, accessible, and unique forms of mental health care through support and advocacy services. As s.e. smith stated on Twitter, “ [people in crises] should receive compassionate care from people who know what they are doing, and peer supporters tend to be most-equipped for that.”

Peer support has been integrated and utilized in many ways — some more effective than others. For example, some college campuses offer peer counseling and support programs that are supervised by the university itself. This takes away a critical element of trust, and replicates oppressive dynamics that we see play out in the mental health “care” system — dynamics that exist due to concerns of liability and fear of Disabled, mentally ill/mad, and neurodivergent folks.

The organization I lead, Project LETS, facilitates peer support programs that operate outside of the purview and supervision of current oppressive systems. Though we offer programs on college campuses, for example, no university administrators supervise us or have access to our records or the students we serve. This builds trust between the peer supporter and the student they are working with; and they don’t need to fear that something they share may be passed along to an administrator, resulting in a forced medical leave or hospitalization. We are accountable to the people we work with. Not the institution. Not the police.

These types of peer support programs can be designed to operate in communities as well. This is what Project LETS is currently focusing on — our Community Peer Mental Health Advocate (C-PMHA) program model.

the community peer mental health advocate (C-PMHA) model

To address the issues of access to care, carceral/militarized responses to crises, and ableism as an embedded system of oppression, Project LETS is working to develop the Community Peer Mental Health Advocate (C-PMHA) program model. C-PMHAs are community members with lived experience of mental illness/madness, Disability, neurodivergence, and/or trauma, operating in a just, responsive, collaborate and mobile response team to support the needs of the community (without involvement from medical/prison-industrial complex.

C-PMHAs will be trained to provide: culturally responsive 1–1 peer counseling sessions; non-coercive/carceral check-in’s; de-escalation + rapid response work for psychiatric crises/emotional distress; information about community members’ rights while in the hospital or after they’ve left; advocacy/support getting community members’ voices heard and needs met; support at meetings/appointments; brainstorming and problem-solving skills; finding housing; support with paperwork and steps necessary for food stamps, social security, paying bills and beyond.

C-PMHAs will provide fast, free, trauma-informed, culturally/socially responsive care (in multiple languages) that will: 1) increase access to competent, non-coercive mental health services for the most marginalized/vulnerable members of our community; 2) shorten the length of stay in ER’s/psychiatric units, and make visits less frequent; 3) serve as a diversion from incarceration as a solution to mental health crises; 4) serve as a diversion from 911 as the first-responder to mental illness.

We are seeking to dismantle a system in society that devalues and dehumanizes people with mental illness/madness, neurodivergence, and Disabilities (especially QTBIPOC), and create communities outside of the medical system that exist to both help individuals connect to healing resources they are comfortable using; and develop one’s ability and capacity to self-advocate, and demand quality resources and care.

The C-PMHA model has the potential to be incredibly impactful — especially due to the current state of mental health “care” in the US (and more specifically for multiply marginalized communities who are targeted by racism, xenophobia, classism, sexism, transphobia, heterosexism, etc.). Our punitive, carceral, and militarized responses to emotional differences/mental health crises are devastating and life-threatening. As a targeted/marginalized community, we deserve equity, opportunity and self-determination. A better way is possible — we can utilize non-violent de-escalation skills, create response teams, have mutual accountability for community members in crisis, and stop killing/caging folks in distress.

how do I get started?

It’s important to remember that building the systems we want to see and feel safe using will take time and a lot of work. It’s on us to put in this labor and develop these community-based resources if we want to stop relying on 911 + police to fill roles that we don’t have other services for.

s.e. smith offers some steps for getting started/moving forward:

  • Find out if your community has a crisis team and how it’s structured. Find out if it works with peer supporters
  • Ask what happens when someone calls 911 for a mental health crisis: Who responds? What training do they have? What outcomes are they trying to achieve?
  • If police are involved in mental health response, work with organizers and advocates in your community to get that to stop.
  • And if you are not centering Black, brown, and Indigenous people in this work, you are absolutely doing it wrong, because they are most at risk. You cannot combat sanism in policing without directly connecting it to racism.

We welcome you to join our work at Project LETS to get started on transforming your communities today. You can contact us at: info@letserasethestigma.com.

La lucha sigue.

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Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu

Director of Project LETS. Organizer. Psychiatric Survivor. Multiply Disabled and neurodivergent. Parent. Non-clinical healer. Care strategist. Mad Crip doula.