Abstract: Social Work and Police Partnerships: A Mixed Methods Analysis of Students' Perceptions (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Social Work and Police Partnerships: A Mixed Methods Analysis of Students' Perceptions

Friday, January 13, 2023
Hospitality 4 - Room 428, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Alex Fixler, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background: This study contributes to the growing body of literature on the relationship between social work and police. While some social work practitioners and professional bodies see a role for social work in law enforcement, others argue that the field of social work should not align itself with police. Since the discussion has been increasingly prominent in recent years, it is relevant to investigate the opinions of the next generation of social workers. This research sought to assess social work students’ attitudes and perceptions regarding police violence and bias; their attitudes and perceptions regarding the relationship between social work and law enforcement; and to what extent their opinions regarding police violence and bias impacted their opinions about collaboration between social work and policing.

Methods: This mixed methods study used a convergent triangulation design. The sample consisted of MSW and BASW students (N = 124) from 3 urban and rural campuses of a major research university. Participants were recruited with flyers distributed via email to the department’s student body, and several in-class recruitment presentations. Data were collected via a survey containing questions from the Beliefs About Law Enforcement (BALE) scale and several open-ended questions designed by the researcher. Kruskal-Wallis and Spearman’s rho tests were used to detect correlations between BALE scores and student descriptors (i.e., campus, ethnic or racial group, undergraduate vs. graduate program, and age). Ordered logistic regressions were used to test whether BALE scores were associated with students’ (1) perceptions of the appropriateness of social work-police collaboration, and (2) willingness to collaborate with police as part of a social work job. Answers to open-ended questions were coded and themes generated to provide insights on quantitative outcomes.

Results: Overall, student BALE scores were low (M = 9.58, from a possible range of 7-35), with lower scores indicating perceptions of more police bias and violence, and higher scores indicating perceptions of less police bias and violence. Most (88.71%) considered it appropriate for social workers to collaborate with police to some extent. Results indicated that students BALE scores were negatively associated with their opinions about the appropriateness of police-social work collaboration, but not significantly (b = -0.06; p = .29). However, lower perceptions of police violence and bias did suggest a slight but significant positive relationship to a students’ own willingness to collaborate with police (b = 0.21; p = .001). Qualitative analysis revealed that student opinions about collaboration were colored by concerns regarding ethical ambiguities of police-social work collaboration and uncertainty about the implications of this collaboration for the field’s professional identity.

Conclusion and Implications: This study reflects the orientation of contemporary social work students regarding the relationship between social work and policing. Results indicate the need for further research about the capacity for social workers to directly impact police bias, the degree to which social work training equips them to fulfill this purpose, and social work education’s treatment of the relationship between law enforcement and social work.