Although the similarities may not be obvious, police officers have many traits in common with social workers. Both professions are oriented toward relieving communities of the problems that make life difficult for honest, hardworking people. Law enforcement, however, is inherently authoritarian whereas social work is nurturing and supportive. Whereas police make communities safer by removing criminals from the general population, social workers make communities more harmonious by working to mend the tattered social fabric.
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What Police Officers and Social Workers Do
Social work involves identifying vulnerable members of a community and helping them find the resources they need to feel more comfortable and less stressed. Policing is the work of identifying people and places likely to be involved in crimes and then watching them closely to reduce the chance of criminal violence or damage. Social work is essentially a compassionate occupation whereas policing is essentially a conservative occupation. These descriptors have obvious contemporary political connotations, but throughout recent US history, political alignments have shifted many times.
History and Political Connotations
In the early 20th century, social workers were mostly Christian women without college degrees working for charity organizations such as the Salvation Army, Little Sisters of the Poor and Goodwill. A large number of conservative Christians supported left-wing causes such as socialism and democratic populism before the Great Depression caused a major political realignment in the 1930s.
Policing has always been conservative because enforcing the law is a fundamentally conservative act. Social conservatism is the default mode of culture for every society that had ever existed. Political liberalism is the result of long periods of peace and prosperity — such as the period following World War II — which have been rare throughout history. Conservative political philosophy, such as the work of Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, views civilization as a volatile medium that must be continuously pounded into shape with the force of state violence, according to The Economist. Without constant vigilance, the thinking goes, civilization will give way to barbarism and the most dangerous, aggressive people — those who populate maximum-security prisons in the US, for example — will use violence to gain power. Indeed, this theory has been borne out in places like Uganda, Afghanistan, Colombia and El Salvador. The honest, peaceful, hardworking people who make civilized societies function are terrorized and oppressed by the warlords and drug kingpins who rise to power through violence and rule by tyranny when the fragile edifice of civilization crumbles.
Criticism of Police and Social Workers
Law enforcement officers are the public servants tasked with carrying out the state violence necessary to keep civilization functioning. Their work is frequently criticized for being brutal and inhuman by people who hold an idealistic view of the world, as many social workers do. The fact is that their work often is brutal, and occasionally it can seem inhuman when officers are caught on video using seemingly unprovoked and excessive force. The institutions of law enforcement and social work are imperfect because they’re made up of imperfect people. Like law enforcement, social work is mostly a benefit to society but has a few negative aspects associated with in-group insularity. The difference is that social work isn’t a fundamentally violent occupation as law enforcement is.
Serving the public is an honorable deed no matter how it’s done. Whether you want to be a police officer or a social worker, you can play an important role in keeping communities safe and secure.