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Innovative USC collaborative brings social work skills to law enforcement and public safety

  • Alumni
  • Practice

Social work and police work have more overlap than is commonly thought. Approximately 80% of calls to police are social service related. Police are also frontline responders addressing situations involving people experiencing homelessness, substance use or youth-involved crime and often find themselves striving to deescalate a disturbance or connect people with social services. Associate Professors of Social Work Practicum Education Rosamaria Alamo and Ricardo Ornelas at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work are directly addressing this need through the Social Work and Public Safety Collaborative, a first-of-its-kind initiative they created to provide a working partnership and professional development pipeline between social work, local law enforcement agencies, and public safety and community based organizations.

A collaborative born of experience

Alamo and Ornelas met while working in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), she as a school social worker and he as a school safety officer. After retiring from Los Angeles School Police Department at the rank of sergeant, Ornelas earned his Master of Social Work (MSW) at USC, where Alamo had become a clinical assistant professor. They reconnected and found an opportunity to collaborate based on a shared passion for the potential of social work-informed policing. Now in its eighth year, the Social Work and Public Safety Collaborative is a capacity-building partnership providing a multidisciplinary and holistic approach to serving vulnerable populations through support, education, training, policy and services. It is helping law enforcement agencies across the legal spectrum address social issues and strengthen relationships, engagement and cooperation within local communities.

The collaborative focuses on three overall objectives and practice areas: education and raising awareness, consulting and mentoring, and workforce development. Alamo and Ornelas have solidified partnerships between USC Social Work and law enforcement agencies, public safety departments on college campuses, and community-based public safety organizations to create internships for social work students all along the criminal justice spectrum. This hands-on training allows students to apply their skills in interrupting pathways to violence early and provides law enforcement, public safety and criminal justice professionals the opportunity to experience how social work interventions can enhance their work. To date, this collaborative has guided over 100 MSW students through practicum placements that integrate social work principles into law enforcement and public safety settings, including the Los Angeles, Gardena and Santa Monica police departments, as well as college campus public safety and community organizations, including USC Department of Public Safety, Chaffey Community College, Casa De La Familia, the Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs, and the San Diego Public Defender’s Office.

“it's not just one population or one given setting, it's across the spectrum,” Alamo said. “Whether it's providing services and support to those agencies and law enforcement that are servicing unhoused people, or those presenting with intimate partner violence or child abuse. Not only the micro, but the mezzo and macro, which is powerful and unique.”

Bringing a new perspective to these problems can make all the difference, shifting the focus to identifying relevant resources that address the underlying issues and root causes, rather than a punitive criminal justice model.

“We look through a trauma-informed lens,” Ornelas said. “It’s about moving away from ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What has happened to you, in your life, that has brought you to this point?’”

Integrating social work into criminal justice

One partnership that Alamo and Ornelas work with is Gardena Police Department’s Juvenile Justice and Intervention Program, a voluntary alternative to the criminal justice system and part of growing movement aimed at diverting youth into more positive pathways. It is one of the practicum placement opportunities for MSW students through the collaborative where youth and their families self-refer into the program through a “pre-booking” system that diverts them into wraparound social services instead of being arrested or cited.

Detective Sterling Kim oversees the program and MSW students during their placement. He is a proponent for integrating social work into the criminal justice system and is, himself, an example of applying a multidisciplinary approach to policing, holding a law degree in addition to serving on the police force for 20 years. Kim reports that the program has been highly effective, serving over 700 youth with a recidivism rate of less than 5%, as well as positively impacting the police officers participating in it.

“I stepped over from the law enforcement side into the social work side and I’m able to co-exist in both worlds now,” Kim said. “It has helped me develop self-awareness about my own implicit biases. Some of my former colleagues say I’m unrecognizable.”

The collaborative is meant to engage both students and public safety personnel in a learning experience that goes both ways, respecting that each has strengths, knowledge and experience to offer. Students report being surprised, at times, to learn new approaches from officers who have been on the streets applying community outreach principles for years. They see their role as engaging with and providing tools to the officers and the system overall, not just their justice-involved clients, in order to help alleviate stress and increase awareness.

Interrupting the pathway to violence

The collaborative’s newest partnership is also one of its most innovative and far-reaching. Chaffey College in San Bernardino County, the oldest community college in California, and its interim police chief, Cheryl Newman-Tarwater, are taking a leadership position on creating a regional focus on campus safety. Newman-Tarwater is a 32-year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department who oversaw public safety for the “LA nine,” the largest community college district in the nation, where she helped develop the Higher Education Assessment Team (HEAT) threat assessment protocol in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. When Chaffey College approached her, she saw an opportunity to create a strong regional voice for social work in campus public safety to align with the 10-Point Plan created by Superintendent and President Henry Shannon. The 10-Point Plan commits Chaffey College to retain a mental health expert that works in collaboration with campus police to deescalate noncriminal incidents, when possible. It also commits the college to support efforts to review and modify curricula in criminal justice, promoting equitable practices that better educate and prepare students pursuing careers in law enforcement. It also promotes strong regional opportunities focused on increasing awareness and training among other college campuses across Southern California.

To develop her vision, Newman-Tarwater turned to Alamo and Ornelas, who helped her write and secure state and federal grants for regional training. Chaffey is the only community college in the nation to receive federal funding for this type of program. Newman-Tarwater credits Alamo, Ornelas and USC Social Work with enabling her to launch this new program at Chaffey College and across the region. Recently, she presented and trained a group of public safety officers from across Southern California on the HEAT methodology and other tools for deescalating and diverting potential threats on college campuses.

Newman-Tarwater emphasizes that the key to reducing violence and increasing public safety is interrupting the cycle early and diverting individuals to support services that address needs before they become crises.

“The question is how we can best support those that are unhoused or suffering from mental health issues or students who may be on a pathway to violence and need to be redirected,” Newman-Tarwater said. “It’s really about meeting people where they’re at and then helping them to move forward so that grievance doesn’t continue to build and that pathway to violence isn’t an option for them.”

She notes that since implementing this program at Chaffey College only one of the 55 incidents campus HEAT team members responded to has resulted in an arrest. Her officers focus on using the verbalization and deescalation skills they have learned in order to gain cooperation and reduce use of force.

From social worker to police officer

The collaborative attracts MSW students from diverse backgrounds, some with public safety experience and others who have never even heard of police social work. At least one alum of the collaborative was inspired to become a police officer after completing their MSW. Carlos Madrid, MSW/MPH ’15, had no prior military or law enforcement experience when he began his practicum placement with the Gardena Police Department. He had originally planned to specialize in policy or nonprofit services with his social work degree, but his internship in the juvenile diversion program convinced him that his path was to apply his social work training to making a difference in people’s lives through law enforcement. He enrolled in the police academy after receiving dual graduate degrees and is now an officer with the Santa Monica Police Department.

“I’m still a social worker first, I just happen to have a police uniform,” Madrid said. “When I’m looking at myself from the outside, I see a social worker with a master’s degree in the craft.”

Pablo Ayala, MSW ’19, took the opposite path. After 15 years as an officer with the USC Department of Public Safety (DPS), and military service prior to that, he pursued an MSW in order to deepen his skills in violence reduction and people-centered interventions to make a larger impact. Now a lieutenant with DPS, Ayala uses his social work skills every day and actively mentors the officers on his team to provide them with a full range of tools to deploy in a variety of public safety situations.

Alamo and Ornelas see tremendous potential to expand the collaborative, continue to positively influence law enforcement culture, and support other schools of social work across the country to develop similar initiatives in their communities. They are currently exploring offers to extend their consulting, training, practicum placements and workforce development into additional areas of the criminal justice and public safety sphere, including integration of social work training and competencies into police academy curriculum and city and state prosecutors’ offices.

“First and foremost, it starts with the leadership,” Ornelas said. “Helping law enforcement leaders to develop a culture of care, and take care of their people in a way that supports their mental-emotional needs so they are in a better place to support the community. When officers see leadership that really believes and respects this approach to policing and partnering with social work, it goes a long way.”

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)