Police and Social Workers Team Up in Honolulu


Social workers and police are teaming up more and more often as law enforcement comes to a very stark realization. That realization is that treating the underlying causes of social ills can have a preventive and preemptive effect on crime. The more our law enforcement officials facilitate effective treatment of social problems, the more the social work field becomes a hand-in-hand partner to law enforcement. The trend is, therefore, a positive one, and now Honolulu law enforcement has provided us with yet another good example.

Brittany Lyte, in Civil Beat, reports that low-level offenders (who could conceivably get services instead of jail time) aren’t eligible for the new program run by the Honolulu police. Despite this, though, Honolulu law enforcement is working with social workers to provide help to many who do need it and who are eligible. She describes a scene in which an officer approaches a man who has been homeless for eight years. The man agrees to accept from a social worker, perhaps taking the first step towards breaking a cycle that could easily see him running afoul of the law while living on the street.

While those involved have not yet agreed on which crimes are eligible for the social work intervention program, there’s no doubt that that Hawaii’s Health & Harm Reduction Center represents a step in the right direction.

“Honolulu police arrested thousands of people in 2017 who could have potentially benefitted from social services,” Lyte writes. “All told, 60 percent of everyone arrested by HPD last year suffered from serious mental illness or severe substance abuse. Often jail time does people in this population more harm than good. So the Legislature moved to fund the LEAD program, in part, to help move people off the streets and keep them from continually cycling through the criminal justice system. …[R]ight now the only way to get into the program is if a police officer sees someone who could benefit from social services — but has not committed a crime — and opts to bring an on-call social worker to the scene.”

Challenges remain even among those who do receive treatment. Lyte reports that of 30 inaugural participants, eight are no longer active in the program. Their case managers have lost track of them, something that’s not uncommon when the client doesn’t have a consistent address or phone contact. Some of those participants might even have been arrested, although that information is apparently unavailable to the case workers.

The result is that, while alternative intervention programs of this type must (at present) rely on the discretion of individual officers, the marriage of police work and social work holds great promise for preventing issues instead of punishing them. Still, there are many gaps, and it’s easy to see why skeptics of such programs remain unconvinced.

What do you think? Would you work with law enforcement in a program of this type? Have you? And is prevention a better solution than treatment and remediation after the fact… either before or after incarceration? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us here.

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