How Social Workers Improve Relationships Between Police and Communities

In 1955, the Los Angeles Police Department adopted the motto “To Protect and Serve,” and over the last seven decades, many other American law enforcement departments followed suit. But in the Black Lives Matter era, those words may not resonate with some members of the communities police are tasked with protecting and serving. Community members may feel law enforcement officials exercise more authority than necessary. How can both sides work to create a more positive coexistence?

Social workers at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work are stepping in to help with a new program that places interns in police departments where they can help officers address social issues that affect local communities. The partnership aims to build internship and workforce development opportunities for the school’s graduates.

“Basically, what we’re doing is providing this unique opportunity to have social work and law enforcement work side by side to discover the many commonalities between us,” said Rosemary Alamo, Clinical Associate Professor, Field Education, Department of Children, Youth and Families at USC.

This positive interaction between social work interns and police officers can help cultivate a foundation of trust and understanding with the community because each side is taking the time to listen and learn from one another.

Alamo, along with Ricardo Ornelas, Adjunct Lecturer, Field Education, Department of Children, Youth and Families at USC, leads USC’s collaborative effort between social workers and the LAPD. One of its core missions is to provide a more comprehensive, holistic approach to the needs of at-risk youth and their families.

Working with police, the social work interns use evidence-based interventions such as motivational interviewing and problem-solving therapy, incorporating a trauma-informed lens in their work. The goal is to help raise graduation rates in the community and to prevent youth from being incarcerated or becoming involved in gangs.

Since different communities have different needs, the USC program tailors its services for each community and the officers who serve there. In LAPD’s Southwest Division, for example, the supervisors wanted interns to work more closely with domestic violence victims. In each case, the USC interns help build infrastructure and provide direct intervention to populations in need, Alamo said.

The problem of trust

Law enforcement and the communities they serve must trust each other in order to ensure public safety and effective policing. Law enforcement officers rely on community members to provide information about crime in their neighborhoods and work with them to address those problems. Similarly, community members’ willingness to trust the police depends on respect — citizens must feel like they are being treated fairly. 

Communities of color in particular hold low levels of trust in law enforcement. While a 2017 Gallup survey showed overall confidence in the police rose slightly in a two-year period, with 57 percent of Americans saying they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in law enforcement, trust remained low among blacks, dropping to 30 percent in 2015-2017 from 35 percent in 2012-2014. Trust among Hispanics also dropped to 45 percent in the 2015-2017 report from 59 percent in 2012-2014.

Decline has overlapped with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, spurred by the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of teen Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in his Florida community, claimed he shot Martin in self-defense. While Zimmerman was not a member of law enforcement, other high-profile cases involving police and the deaths of young black Americans soon began making headlines.

“Two years ago, when we started this program, the whole controversy about police and police-involved shootings was huge,” said Yasmeen Surio, a 2018 Master of Social Work graduate who has parlayed her internship under Alamo’s program at LAPD’s Hollenbeck Police Activity League into a permanent position. “It was in the media all the time and I decided, ‘This is how I can make a change. This is how I can make a difference.

Surio works in neighborhoods in LA that see heavy gang activity. Her role is to help officers look at individuals beyond the gang lens and through a social work lens. She said figuring out how to work better together by taking a holistic approach is one of the program’s most important goals.

“What are the other things that are at play that make this individual act the way he does or she does?” Surio asked. “Let’s not look at him or her for whatever crime they’re doing but what’s going on in their family and their environment. Let’s try to understand the individual as a whole.”

Assumptions may contribute to misunderstandings that exist on both sides. A 2017 poll by Pew Research Center showed 83 percent of Americans believed they understood the risks and challenges of police work, including 38 percent who believed they understood the risks very well.

But 86 percent of the police surveyed said the public did not fully comprehend what officers face — including 40 percent who said Americans don’t understand the risks and challenges of police work well at all.

To build trust between law enforcement and communities, the Department of Justice made the following recommendations:

  • Acknowledge and discuss challenges with your communities.
  • Be transparent and accountable.
  • Take steps to reduce bias and improve cultural competency.
  • Maintain focus on the importance of collaboration, and improve visibility in the community.
  • Promote internal diversity and ensure professional growth opportunities.

Putting ideas into action

Strategies to address this issue are being developed and implemented across the country, with many social workers leading the way. Ornelas is a recognized expert in law enforcement who teaches procedural justice to law enforcement officers in different agencies. He serves as an instructor for the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute (SBSLI) for the State of California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). SBSLI is a flagship leadership program for law enforcement supervisors in the state of California. The goal of his work is to engage police in the idea of treating civilians fairly and respectfully, always making sure to do; what’s best for the community.

Ornelas also has expertise in mental health, which he uses to teach California officers how to recognize mental health conditions, and how to use verbalization and de-escalation skills to resolve problems peacefully.

Given all the social ills that are happening with homelessness, mental health and so forth, [law enforcement] are expected to be able to address those issues with a level of expertise, and they are the first to attest that that’s not their area of expertise,” Alamo said.

And the field of police-community relations offers social workers many opportunities to get involved.

Sasha Lear, who earned her Master of Social Work from USC in 2015, serves as operations manager at Operation Progress in the Watts section of LA. She works with the LAPD to identify children its officers would like to mentor. Lear has seen the program grow from 12 mentors to 40 in three years.

“You can’t find a cop in the country who doesn’t want to help a good kid,” LAPD officer and Operation Progress founder John Coughlin said in the documentary A Week in Watts, which premiered on Netflix in spring 2018. Lear said it wasn’t difficult to find support among police officers and get others to buy into the program.And Surio has seen that spirit at her internship.

“There are police officers who genuinely want to help,” she said. “I think they really joined the department because they want to make a difference, and I think that’s where we have to leverage it.”

Ultimately, putting in the time to get to know each other can go far toward building better relationships, Ornelas said.

“The more time that law enforcement and the community spend together just engaging in dialogue and breaking down some of those barriers — just by mere interaction in some of the forms that are offered between this partnership — the more likely they are to build that trust.”

Currently, Operation Progress serves approximately 90 scholars and their families in the Watts community of South Los Angeles. Here are some of its reported impact measures taken from informational interviews, pretest/post-test surveys and quantitative/qualitative evaluations.


of students reported a desire to continue participating in service work as adults.


say there are social causes they care about.


would like to register to vote when they turn 18.


say OP is a great source of behavioral support.


report that tutoring helps them maintain their GPA.


say OP is a great source of academic support.

The Los Angeles Police Department reports that OP helps:

  • Law enforcement within the community
  • Solve crime by establishing trust with the community
  • Evolve police-community relations

Mentees report that their LAPD mentors:

  • Support their academic excellence
  • Help them behaviorally and socially
  • Are changing their perceptions about police

Source: Operation Progress

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.