In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Police Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Professional Association
  • Newspaper Articles
  • Challenges in Police Social Work
  • Attitude Comparisons between Police and Social Workers
  • Child Abuse
  • Domestic Violence
  • Social Work Services for Police Officers
  • Police Brutality
  • Models/Demonstration Projects
  • Research Studies

Social Work Police Social Work
George Patterson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0016


Police social work has been defined several ways among the entries published in major social work reference works. The first time police social work appears in the Encyclopedia of Social Work (18th ed.), it is defined in Treger 1987 (cited under Reference Works) as a new area of social work practice in which social workers provide assessment and crisis intervention in a timely manner to individuals experiencing delinquency, mental health issues, alcohol and substance use and abuse, family and neighbor conflicts, and crime victimization. Social workers also provide counseling to police officers and their families as well as training and consultation. Treger also highlights the challenges that arise when social workers and police collaborate. Finally, Treger notes that 50 percent to 90 percent of calls that police receive require a social service response. This establishes the basis for police social work. In other writings, Treger describes demonstration projects in Illinois that provided the foundation for police social work practice. Prior and subsequent to Treger’s work, a literature has developed that describes the types of social challenges addressed by police social workers, roles and tasks, problems that arise when social workers and police collaborate, benefits derived from police social work, and similarities and differences between social workers and police officers. Despite more than 13,000 police departments operating in the United States, police social work constitutes a small area of social work practice. Police social work collaborations range from models in which social workers are employed by police departments to those in which social workers are employed in human service agencies and establish collaborations with police departments. Police social work is international in scope. Documented collaborations, and the similarities between police functions and social work, include numerous countries; among them, Great Britain and the United States of America. Despite geographic differences, the literature supports the need for police social work and identifies the benefits that can be derived from such collaborations. The types of social problems on which social workers and police officers collaborate are also similar among the various countries, and they include issues dealing with juvenile offenders, child abuse, and domestic violence. However, a debate exists regarding whether social workers and police can collaborate effectively given the differences between the two occupations. Most of the literature is of older vintage.

Introductory Works

Vintage work focused on the topic of police social work either describe police officers as social workers, because of the duties they perform within communities that are related to social services, or stress the need for social workers to collaborate with police. This work reviews the emergence of police social work as an area of social work practice and establishes the basis for police social work. Although much of the police social work literature is of older vintage, this does not imply that police social work is no longer an area of practice. Police social work is a small specialty area within the social work profession. Few police departments hire social workers to perform police social work. Many sources illustrate these points. Katherine Briar conducted a study and found that 26 percent of the calls to the 911 dispatcher were for general advice and information and 22 percent were related to victim needs (Briar 1985). Briar concluded that these calls could be handled directly by social workers employed within communication centers. Coordinating police and social work, published in The American City in 1952, is among the earliest articles to describe the hiring of social workers to work in a police department; in this case, in a department located in Rochester, New York. Jones 1963 describes the social work role of the police officer and how police in Great Britain could improve community relations by preventing juvenile crime using social work techniques. Patterson 2004 examines data identifying the types of problems, referrals, and services provided by a small police social work team located in the northeastern United States. Roberts 2007 describes the historical background of police social work and notes that policewomen were hired in police departments prior to 1930. Oden and Schlossman 1991 traces the history of the first female police officer who was also a social worker. Walker 2006 suggests that the effects of early police social workers and policewomen on present-day policing are not recognized. A comprehensive study, Zimmerman 1988 samples forty-six police social workers from twenty-three police social work departments and notes the small size of police social work units.

  • Briar, Katharine H. 1985. Emergency calls to police: Implications for social work intervention. Social Service Review 59.4: 593–603.

    DOI: 10.1086/644333

    This interesting and innovative study describes a content analysis of nondispatched calls made to a 911 center. Results show that nearly half of the nondispatched calls were for social service needs. Conclusions suggest that social workers employed within communication centers could refer these callers to social service and other agencies.

  • Coordinating police and social work. 1952. The American City 67 (December): 163.

    This very early writing described the hiring of social workers within a police department in Rochester, New York. Social workers intervened in marriage and family problems and in cases involving youth and missing persons. The approach was described as effective. It was anticipated that social workers would help reduce the crime rate.

  • Jones, Howard. 1963. Policemen as social workers. New Society 14 (November): 9–10.

    This early writing is one of many that recognizes the social work functions of policing and describes police officers as social workers. How police in Great Britain can improve community relations by preventing juvenile crime with social work principles is discussed.

  • Oden, Mary E., and Steven Schlossman. 1991. Guardians of virtue: The juvenile court and female delinquency in early 20th century Los Angeles. Crime & Delinquency 37.2: 186–203.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128791037002003

    This historical article traces the influence of the Progressive Era in police social work. During the early 20th century youth services were guided by gender beliefs that arrested girls would receive better services from female professionals, including female police officers. It describes a social worker who became the first policewoman in the United States. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Patterson, George T. 2004. Police social work crisis teams: Practice and research implications. Stress, Trauma and Crisis 7:93–104.

    DOI: 10.1080/15434610490450886

    This article presents a study examining data identifying the types of social problems addressed, referrals, and services provided by a police social work team located in the northeastern United States. From 221 records over a nine-month period, family problems represented 65 percent of the cases. A case example is also provided.

  • Roberts, Albert. R. 2007. Police social work: Bridging the past to the present. In Social work in juvenile and criminal justice settings. Edited by Albert R. Roberts and David W. Springer, 126–129. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

    This interesting historical book chapter traces the development of police social work prior to 1930 through the 1950s and 1960s. This is one of the few writings that trace the origins of police social work to the employment of female police officers with some social work training.

  • Walker, Dwayne. 2006. Lost and forgotten: Early police social workers. The New Social Worker 13.2: 8–9.

    This interesting historical article extends the contributions of policewomen as the beginning of the police social work movement. Policewomen and their work peaked between 1924 and 1928. Following this period the influence of their work began to diminish.

  • Zimmerman, Sheryl I. 1988. Police social work in twenty-three programs: Program description and analysis of interdisciplinary relations. PhD diss., Univ. of Illinois at Chicago.

    A very comprehensive dissertation study that sampled forty-six police social workers from twenty-three police social work departments. Results describe the types of interventions provided and the sources of referral to police social workers. Importantly, referrals were made from outside the police department. The perceptions of police social workers are also examined.

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