Method: This study takes a historical content analysis approach. The primary data source was proceedings from the National Conference on Charities and Corrections. We drew a systematic, random sample of proceedings every five years between 1874 and 1982. We supplemented these proceedings with additional years that contained a high volume of references to police, for a total of 28 proceedings. Within these years, we used a set of search terms to capture all references to police, identifying 386 unique references for extraction. Once data were extracted, we used an iterative, inductive-deductive process to code and thematically organize data, within and across decades, in relation to social work’s perceptions of (a) police and policing and (b) the relationship between social work and police. We drew from additional primary and secondary sources to further investigate key people and events, and used data and researcher triangulation to verify findings.
Results: We found that the profession of social work has generally viewed law enforcement as an entrenched, though imperfect, “social agent,” responsible for ensuring social order along with professions, like social work and education. Findings also indicate the relationship between social work and law enforcement is one characterized by cooperation and conflict. Cooperation with police ranged from distal to integral, with collaboration primarily sought to advance social work aims (e.g., effective administration of charity, protection of the “worthy poor”, elimination of immorality, and the prevention of delinquency and crime). Conflicts ranged from ideological to practical, occurring when police activities were perceived as hindering achievement of social work aims or worsening related social problems. Across the 100-year period under investigation, social workers identified a variety of problems with police and policing (e.g., ineffectiveness, corruption, violence, ethnoracial inequities, and incongruence with social work values), yet the profession’s cooperation with law enforcement continued.
Conclusions and Implications: The history of social work-law enforcement relations offers several lessons for current debates on the role of both social work and law enforcement in society, and the integration of social work and police. Among the most important of these is that social work has a long history of working with law enforcement and despite various permutations of the relationship between social work and law enforcement, there is little evidence that social work-law enforcement cooperation leads to sustained, progressive reform.