New Yorkers might see police officers and social workers teamed up on patrol if criminologist and NYPD consultant George Kelling’s vision becomes reality.
Kelling, who is famous for co-writing the Broken Windows Theory, was hired by Commissioner William Bratton in early March to make suggestions as part of a monthslong effort to improve the city’s safety. Kelling, 78,, was hired by Bratton for a similar task the last time he was the city’s top cop in the ’90s.
And after many late-night subway ride-alongs, Kelling — who has a Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a master’s in social work — concluded that people suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues can be better helped by a police-social worker partnership.
“There should be more than arrests or a shelter for these people,” Kelling said. “One way to think about it is for there to be a team that goes out with one or two officers [and] a social worker and go to areas of the subway where you know there are mentally disturbed and substance abuse [sufferers]who you know need help. And you may need to go again and again.”
In the ’80s and ’90s lawlessness in the subways was rampant and needed to be addressed above all else, Kelling said.
However, one recent evening when Kelling was working, he watched a girl use her cellphone in the subway. It was about 11 p.m., he said, and it reminded him how much the city has changed.
“In 1980 you wouldn’t have seen that. Your safety would really be at risk,” he said. “Now we fast forward 20 years and the problem there is very different. It’s a problem of a very damaged, emotionally disturbed and substance abusing population that is in desperate need of help.
“The problem has changed and I think our work has to change as well,” Kelling added. He is currently a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a professor at Rutgers University, and a Harvard fellow.
This is not a new notion — similar tactics have been tried in several cities, including Rochester and several Chicago suburbs. But those programs were not exactly what Kelling is proposing and did not involve going on patrol together.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, declined to comment for this story. The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment. .
“A lot of the encounters police have — a very high percentage — involve social problems that social workers are very adept at handling,” said Dr. Robert Schachter, executive director of New York City’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “There’s a range of things social workers can do. One is to de-escalate, to engage, to be able to talk about what the options are.”
Schachter said social workers are very familiar with being in dangerous situations, often without any backup. If the police department decides to commit to this kind of program, he said, “it could be done. It could be done very skillfully and very, very well.”
Dr. George Patterson, a former social worker and employee with the Rochester Police Department, said the city offers a unique mix of people in need, making a potential police/social worker pairing helpful, but also potentially volatile.
“I think the model is doable, but I think it will take some brainstorming on the part of police and on the part of social workers,” said Patterson, who now works as a professor in the school of social work at CUNY Hunter. “I think that New York, the level of impatience, is very different here.”
In Rochester, Patterson said social workers weren’t paired with officers. Rather, they would respond in an unmarked car to issues like domestic violence, child abuse situations or landlord/tenant problems. But the officer would always go first.
“What it would do is free police officers up so they could do police work,” he said.
Patterson has consulted on training for the NYPD and said when he brought up a similar partnership concept several of the officers seem enthused. But Patterson projects it would take a lot of effort — and maybe some pilot testing — to get it done.
“Social workers would need to be prepared to collaborate,” he said. “I think preparation on both sides is a step in the right direction. This process wouldn’t be done overnight, but it’s definitely worthwhile to explore.”
A lot of factors still have to be ironed out to put Kelling’s theory into practice. Cost is certainly one of them.
“I think that ultimately would be determined by the number of people that you have,” Kelling said. “And you’d have to have a good number.”