Ondine: Hello, everyone. We actually weren't planning to record an episode today, but we felt like it was important to have a conversation about the recent police murder of Atatiana Jefferson and talk about that in the context of social work in this podcast. And, yeah. So, Drew, do you want to maybe share with our audience who may not be familiar with this story? What happened?
Drew: Yeah. On Saturday, October 12th of this year, Atatiana Jefferson was playing video games with her eight-year-old nephew in her home. A neighbor observed that the front door appeared to be open and just out of concern that everybody in a Atatiana's household were okay called the non-emergency number, so not 911. In the United States, there's usually a local phone number you call to ask for a responder to come and check out something that is not emergency related.
Drew: And then what ended up happening where a police responded to this wellness check, is what it's been called, and was prowling around in Atatiana's backyard. So she heard somebody snooping around in her backyard, went to go investigate it, and when she approached the window, the cop pulled out his weapon and fired at Atatiana and murdered her.
Ondine: So this is a conversation that we felt we needed to have today for a lot of reasons, but it was born out of us discussing wellness checks generally in the context of this recent police murder. I don't know about other folks, but I didn't really understand what a wellness check was supposed to be. I don't think I understood that I could call the police and request that. I never would. And we'll talk more about that.
Drew: Yeah, I never really understood or I, prior to earlier this year actually, was not aware of a thing called a welfare check or a wellness check. I Actually encountered it because I, earlier this year was working as a program manager at a domestic violence shelter. And sometimes we would have clients who had left shelter who'd move out on their own but still received services, and sometimes after we would try to get ahold of them, sometimes we wouldn't have any success.
Drew: And so one day when talking about somebody who we weren't able to get ahold of just to see how they're doing, somebody said we should do a welfare check.
Ondine: Were you like, "What's that?"
Drew: Well, it seems self-explanatory to me, which is like we're going to go check on them, we're going to go check on them.
Ondine: So you thought when they suggested a wellness check that you guys would go.
Drew: We were the ones that had been working with her and we were familiar with her. She was familiar with us.
Drew: And so when I asked somebody to do it, the answer I got was, "Well, we don't normally do that. We usually have the police do it."
Ondine: So we're talking about folks who are survivors of intimate partner violence, who may or may not be in a dangerous situation, and so we're going to escalate that by dispatching armed police officers in the frame of a wellness check. Just trying to understand.
Drew: I don't think it's going to make sense. And so that was the first time I've encountered that. That was also after three years of a graduate school program for a master's in social work where we'd never talked about what a wellness check would be.
Ondine: Yeah. Maybe in people's practicums they had experience with that.
Drew: Still, if it is something that we're going to be doing probably worth mentioning that, "Hey, this is what a welfare check is." So, again, there wasn't really a clear understanding of what it was even when I encountered it.
Ondine: And when you say if that is something we're going to be doing dot, dot, dot. Actually, I think the point of this conversation is that social workers weren't doing the wellness check.
Ondine: Wellness checks are being carried out by police officers, at least in some communities.
Drew: Yeah. And most communities I would even probably say. And it just seems antithetical to me to do a wellness check, a safety check, a welfare check. And the way we carry this out is sending out really agitated arm to the teeth-
Drew: ... militarized first responders to do what?
Ondine: Prowl around your house, and then kill you.
Drew: Prowl around and fucking kill you. Yeah. I think that's where we ended up talking about this is why are police being sent to do welfare checks? And I've often held the opinion that I don't think we need more police to be first responders. I think we would need more social workers to be first responders. We can talk about where we've seen this implemented somewhere.
Ondine: In propping it, yeah.
Drew: But again, we've seen so many stories of people who are having a mental health crisis or in distress and the response is to, again, send some really itchy-
Drew: ... finger, trigger finger.
Ondine: Trigger happy.
Drew: Trigger happy police officers who end up fucking killing people.
Ondine: Yeah. So just to also kind of back this up with some stats, and some numbers, and I know we have listeners in the U S but also abroad who will have different experiences with police and police violence, but the Washington Post keeps a database. It's called The Police Shootings Database. So I went looking at that, and so far in 2019, 717 people have been shot and killed by police officers in the United States. At least 34 of those people were known to be unarmed. 17 of them had a toy weapon, 125 of them had knives and 47 of them were unknown. It was unknown as to whether or not they had a weapon of any kind. 10 of those shootings, murders by police I found out were in my own state, of Kentucky. And the year is not over.
Drew: Now, let's talk a little bit about the proportion of who has been murdered by police. So this project on the Washington Post, right?
Drew: List of races of folks. But there is about, what, about 200 where they say the race is unknown. So let's just look at what the races where it's known. There's 508 people where the races were known. Of those 508, 29.1% of them were black. 42.1% were white and 23.8% were Latin X.
Drew: So you could say like the majority of white people or a majority of people killed by police are white. But when you compare that to the the proportion of our general population, black people only make up 12.7% of our general population and yet almost 30% of police killings are of black people. Why doesn't that match the general population?
Drew: That is where you start to see that there is strong anti-blackness bias among police officers. Also, a strong anti-Latin X bias as well because even though, again, the proportion of people killed by police who are Latin X was lower than white people, Latin X people still only make up 17.6% of the general population and yet 23.8% of those where the race was known were Latin X people killed by police. Why doesn't that match the general proportion of the population?
Ondine: I mean when we talk about white supremacy culture like this is very tangibly what we're talking about. This is how this actually shows up.
Ondine: I was looking at a website called mappingviolence.org with some similar statistics and there's a graphic on there that shows that black people are three times more likely to be killed by police officers than white people. And that in 2015 99% of the cases did not result in officers being convicted of any crime at all. So this is murdering with, what is it, without impunity?
Ondine: And I'm just going to put this out here and people probably aren't going to be comfortable. Some people aren't going to like it, but I don't like police. I have never trusted police. The way my community was policed growing up, my own interactions with police, the interactions of people I love with police. I do not see police as people whose goal are to keep me safe as he polices. Their job is to protect the property of rich people.
Drew: I would also say too that, I agree with everything you said, but I'm also going to say something that might be disagreeable to people. I don't think... It is my opinion, my belief that cops, the police, their existence is incompatible with social work both just as a profession but also the ethics that we supposedly have. They're just not.
Ondine: That's right.
Drew: They're antithetical to what we try to do as social workers.
Ondine: Again, this may ruffle some folks' feathers and we're happy to be in the dialogue about it because I think that's how we learn and grow as a community. But I feel really strongly about that. Also in preparation for this short episode, we were looking into communities where social workers are employed by police departments or being engaged in sort of first response teams. Very, very recently in Bloomington, Indiana, which is a state close to us, they hired a full time social worker pan some further investigation. It sounds like the social worker sometimes does ride-alongs with the police, but the purpose of hiring her was to try to reduce recidivism. So to manage repeat calls over folks, the same folks.
Ondine: So their hope is that she can connect those folks with services and that, I guess, people will stop calling the cops on these people or something. I think you found an article from like Portland or someplace?
Drew: Well, I was actually going say I found also that in our own state in Alexandria, Kentucky-
Ondine: Oh, that's right.
Drew: ... the police department also hired a social worker to do similar things like that, but in Eugene, Oregon they organized a program so that when someone called, I guess either the emergency or non-emergency number and it was describing a situation where somebody was in distress, might have been somebody who's unhoused or homeless, having a mental health crisis instead of sending police to deescalate that they've now created a program to dispatch social workers to go and respond to that.
Ondine: Without police present.
Drew: Without police, yeah. Which speaks to the model that I spoke of a little earlier, which is I don't know why social workers aren't more first responders.
Ondine: Yeah. We talked about that and like one of the early episodes, right?
Ondine: I'll be curious. I don't know how long this program has been going on in Eugene, Oregon, but I'd be really curious to hear from folks who have experience with it, if it has actually decreased to the number of police dispatches to communities. I would really like to learn more about that.
Drew: I would too.
Ondine: Yeah, I think we have been taught in the United States that when there are things happening in our communities or in our neighborhoods that look suspicious and there's a whole lot to unpack on there that what we're supposed to do is to call the police, and calling the police can be obviously a death sentence for people but particularly black people in our country.
Ondine: And there are alternatives to calling the police that I think we should start to talk about more, that we need to think about and take up as individuals in our communities. But if you are a social worker, like I think spending some real time unlearning the instinct to call the police is really important. So I was digging around there. Actually a lot of resources and we will share them through our social media on like what to do, toolkits for what to do instead of calling the police. A couple of things that popped out to me, one suggestion was to... It seems so simple, but to get to know your neighbors.
Drew: We've talked about this in regard to social workers not living where they work, and I think police officers are also guilty of not living where they work.
Ondine: I knew somebody. I worked with somebody once whose husband was a police officer, and she told me that they had actually been encouraged and instructed to not live in the community they'd be policing in.
Drew: Which I'm kind of like, if the primary duties of your job are so antagonistic that you can't live among the people that you're trying to protect, there might be something wrong with how you're doing your job.
Ondine: Yeah. And I'm not saying that knowing your neighbors means that you're never going to find yourself in these like tense or uncomfortable situations where you're faced with a decision about how to act or react. But I think part of getting to know your neighbors is that part of that is agreeing, talking to each other and agreeing on how you're going to handle it if somebody playing their music too loud or what they expect of you with respect to keeping an eye on their house and just sort of paying attention to the comings and goings of the neighborhood.
Ondine: Something else that stood out to me was that we really need to work on individually rewriting our internal scripts about the police and specifically that the police are there to protect us, that the police are around to keep us safe.
Drew: They're not.
Ondine: They're not. Keep who safe? clearly they don't keep black people safe and other folks of color. They're not keeping undocumented people safe in our country.
Drew: White middle class people maybe?
Ondine: I guess so.
Drew: I don't know. Well, they might be keeping some people safe, but they're not keeping everybody safe equally.
Ondine: Yeah. I would like to share if it's okay with you, there was a scene I found online with 12 things you can do instead of calling the police, and I'll share this also. But I think each one of these items gives a lot of food for thought for us as just individual people but also as good community members and neighbors, and then social workers too. So the first thing is don't feel obligated to defend property, particularly corporate property. Instead of confronting someone or calling the police if they seem to be damaging corporate property, ask yourself if anyone is being hurt or endangered. And if the answer is no, that's not a time to call the police.
Drew: It might be a time to mind your own business.
Ondine: Right. Or you talk to the person who owns the property later or just... Yeah, if something of yours is being stolen, this was another suggestion, and you feel like you need to file a report for your insurance. Maybe go down to the police station instead of inviting police into your community because you could be universally putting someone in danger by by bringing police into your neighborhood.
Ondine: People really need to check their impulses as well before calling the police. If you think someone's looking or acting suspicious. And again this is me, I'm using air quotes that you all can't see. Why is that? Is there something about their race, or their gender or their ethnicity or where their class or the situation that is influencing your thinking that they are suspicious. That's a moment for some really serious self-reflection.
Drew: I don't know if you all can hear this. Right now in fact, almost as if on cue there is a police helicopter just circling neighborhood that we're recording this in.
Ondine: Yeah. Its been making rounds and it's really... It feels highly militarized and unnecessary.
Drew: At night, yeah. Again, that's not social work.
Ondine: No. It isn't. Another suggestion from this scene which I think is right on, is to either hold or organize or attend a deescalation or conflict resolution training. And there are a lot of community organizations that do that, but it's not terribly difficult to organize that yourself in your community or even first aid like learn first aid, how to be like a volunteer medic, take that to your workplace or to your church or wherever it is that you and your community congregate.
Ondine: Yeah, so sometimes I think that's what people are afraid of too when they call the police is that they'll hear something going on between neighbors, let's say like an argument. And I think it's very real to feel fear or anxiety about why I don't know how to intervene in a way that's going to bring the tension down, and I don't want to get hurt. I don't want to get caught up in something that's going to be dangerous to me. I mean, how would you respond to folks for whom are like, "This doesn't sound reasonable. I think calling the police are the only way to keep myself safe."
Drew: I think that's tough because there's a lot of talk about something called bystander intervention training where basically people were taught how to disrupt those, say arguments happening between neighbors to try to deescalate it. And I think rightfully there is some critique that people get hurt trying to do this bystander intervention. But I think there are other ways to do it other than like physically putting your body at risk. I think a lot of times just distractions can be a really good thing. There's that funny video that was on YouTube or it's still on YouTube, but several years back of that guy deescalating an argument on a New York city subway. And there were two people arguing and his thing that he did was just stood between the two people and continued to eat his bag of Fritos like chili cheese Fritos.
Ondine: Oh my god. I forgot about that video.
Drew: Do you remember that? It just defused it. So again, he literally put his body in between them. But I think there are other things that you can do to just distract, disrupt that momentum that that anger and that tension can get without also putting yourself at risk.
Ondine: Yeah. I want to go back and watch that video
Drew: It was a good video.
Drew: I think of it like because it's kind of an expert class on how to do that.
Ondine: If people are having what appears to be some kind of mental health crisis, just historically calling the police, it doesn't end well for so many people.
Drew: Who was that dude? I don't remember his name. He was a black man. He was a mental health caregiver or social worker, but there was a person who maybe it was autism spectrum disorder or something, but was having a lot of distress out in public and somebody called the police and that social worker went out and was trying to deescalate it. I mean, he had his hands up and everything and the police fucking shot him. Do you remember that?
Ondine: I do remember that. In escalating a tense situation, when does that ever work?
Drew: It never works. It ends when somebody is dead.
Drew: That's when the tension defuses.
Ondine: Yeah. I was thinking about that a lot just too as somebody who there's a lot of mental illness in my family and I lost my brother to suicide, and the idea of police intervening in a time where people were or a person is experiencing suicidal ideation just feels so deeply wrong, and so dangerous.
Drew: Yeah. I do want to address something that I think is possible. I'd come up with a lot of folks who are listening to this is that there is a natural... I don't want to call it an impulse because you can't control it, but a natural direction that people go in sometimes because he maybe have a family member, because you haven't had any negative interactions with police. You might feel defensive and you might think, "Well, most cops aren't killing people like that. Most cops are good people doing good work."
Drew: And that might numerically be true, but here's the thing about that. None of us know which of those cops are going to be the murderous cops and which ones are actually going to be the ones who are what you describe as good. Those good ones, I have yet to see organized in any meaningful way to speak up about this phenomenon of murdering unarmed people, especially black people. So one, I have the question of what is goodness to you?
Ondine: Yeah. Okay. I won't say anything about that
Drew: But two, again, it kind of say this a lot with white people when it comes to being an ally and an accomplice is that most white people are probably not overtly racist, but people of color never know which white person is going to be the racist, is going to be violent and which one is going to be on their side or which ones is non-racist and is not somebody you have to think about because we're all identified by one thing, which is our whiteness.
Drew: So it's not like we have IDs that say, "Oh, I'm one of the good white people. Nope, I'm one of the bad white people." We just don't know. And I think it's the same way with cops. It's like we have no idea which ones are bad and which ones are good. And it really is an act of self preservation to say that all cops are bad.
Ondine: Well, and of course it's overly simplified too to think of people as good or bad, right?
Ondine: I think the institution of the police needs to be abolished. So that's where I come down on that. I know somebody whose brother is a police officer in our community and this person is like... I've seen them become defensive, especially online because everybody shows themselves online about critiques of the police because this person loves their brother very much. And you know, generally their brothers kind of a nice person. I don't know him super well, but he's a nice person who maybe has been able to have decent relationships with some people in the community, but he's also a part of a machine that is really meant to keep us safe. It's just not.
Ondine: And it's bloated and it is violent. Police tend to seem to... They rally around each other so where they zip up and they get really quiet. You were saying a minute ago, where are all the "good" cops speaking out against this behavior, not behavior, right? Like murder. They're murderous coworkers, but they're not saying anything. They're closing in, they're keeping quiet.
Drew: Let's call it what it is. It's terrorism.
Drew: Which also terrorism is most effective when you don't know where it's coming from. It's a fear response. Almost like offering conditioning where you don't know where the terror is going to come from, but you know it can come from any one of these times. So you just don't know.
Ondine: Are you basically saying that those of us who live in a society that's so overly policed, we are terrorized?
Drew: Yeah, I am.
Ondine: Particularly black people and folks of color.
Drew: Yeah. They're victims of terror.
Drew: And it is sustained terror because, again, they never know which cop is going to be the cop that kills them.
Drew: So you have to assume for your own self-preservation, any of them can kill you.
Ondine: I mean, I think about too, our role is in social work and as social workers in helping people cope with stress, and helping folks who are experiencing acute, but also longterm mental health crisis. And what is the mental health of your friends right now? Are you checking in with your black friends in particular about how they're feeling and processing? You should be doing that if you're not doing that.
Ondine: I want to share. So a friend of ours who is also a social worker wrote an opinion piece in our local paper as an expression of just how she was feeling when she learned of Atatiana Jefferson's murder. And I'm going to go ahead and just read a part of that if that's okay. So she says in talking about Atatiana Jefferson, that she and her blackness was perceived as a threat and in a matter of seconds she was gone. And that this really is just too much and that she's exhausted.
Ondine: She says, "I'm exhausted. I am out of ideas. I don't know what to do to keep myself from getting killed. I am so tired of trying to anticipate and defend against irrational fear." Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up and concession. I don't know how to smile any bigger. I can't wave any harder. I can't have enough educational degrees. I can't walk or speak any differently. I can't be anyone or anything else to lessen any threat. I am perceived to be."
Ondine: "The truth is the reason I can't figure it out is because the threats have never been about anything other than the color of the skin in which I am housed. I can't defend my blackness. The game is rigged. I can however, say to those who find black and brown skin to be life threatening, it is time to do your work. It's your turn. Heal yourself, heal yourself so that I can sit and eat ice cream on my couch, look out my window, walk on my street, drive my car, call the police when I am in need. Play a video game with my nephew and just breathe. Better yet, do your work and heal so I can simply live. I just want to live."
Drew: Do you work social workers.
Ondine: Yeah. And you are not outside of this, because we have been taught to be social workers and do good work, and we're not objective. This is work we need to do as individuals. Are you doing this work so that we can then hold each other accountable? Well, is there anything else you wanted to add? I think I'm done.
Drew: I think that wraps it up for me. I want to leave it with those words that you just read.
Ondine: Well then community, until next time. You've been listening to Decolonize Social Work, a podcast about social work, oppression and liberation. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and SoundCloud @DecolonizeSW and on Instagram at DecolonizeSocialWork.