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

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

psychiatric institutions are part of the carceral state

As Anne Thériault stated on Twitter:

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”

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
  • 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

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.

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.

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.

  • 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.

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Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu

Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu

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