Can Social Workers Change Policing?

January 4, 2017 / By: Elizabeth Child for Fall 2016 Perspectives newsletter
Police Chief - and social worker - Paul Schnell BSW '88
Paul Schnell, BSW '88


“Cops will say ‘we’re not social workers,’ but in fact we are,” says Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell BSW ’88. He believes that if more social work training was incorporated into police  training, officers would have better relationships with the people they serve and better outcomes in potentially violent situations. “We have to model a willingness to listen,” Schnell says.

The media, and by extension the public, focuses on the smallest percentage of police work, says Schnell, referencing the flashpoints between communities of color and the police. Day to day, he says police are called in response to situations including mental health crises, conflicts between neighbors or child molestation, for which they need to be able to communicate and empathize.

Schnell has earned his stripes in policing as a St. Paul patrol officer, sex crimes investigator, public information officer, neighborhood beat officer and sergeant. But he believes his training and experience as a social worker have played a big role in shaping his career too. “Social work has taught me to be better at forging and fostering relationships while recognizing the complexity of the world,” he says. “It has allowed me to be more open to critique, both from the community and citizens.”


Moving into policing from social work is rare, but for Schnell it was a natural transition. As a St. Thomas student, he had an internship in corrections with young adult male offenders. Later as a social worker at Carver-Scott Educational Cooperative, he had the opportunity to develop a corrections program for EBD (Emotional Behavioral Disorder) students, many of whom were juvenile offenders. He was asked to become a deputy sheriff so he could serve them better. That required him to train in police skills such as driving, shooting and arrest procedures.

“It’s been an incredible ride,” Schnell says with the enthusiasm of someone who’s found his niche. He also earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from St. Kate’s and currently teaches “The Anatomy of Violence,” in the St. Kate’s — St. Thomas Bachelor of Social Work program. In addition, he co-leads a workshop called Black and White with Jason Sole, who is a professor at Hamline University, current president of the Minneapolis NAACP and active in Black Lives Matter. Sole is a former student of Schnell’s.


Despite his vision of what policing could look like, Schnell acknowledges the tension inherent in being both social worker and the government’s enforcement branch. He empathizes with the St. Paul police who were called to the Black Lives Matter protest at the Governor’s Mansion last summer. “How do you balance letting protestors speak to the sense of justice that they’re demanding and still be responsive to the neighbors who live on this street?” he asks. “We all know use of force and arrest is not the answer. We have to facilitate people’s need to give voice to past and current injustice, and ensure public and neighborhood safety.”

What he does not want to see happen as a result of such conflicts is for the police and communities of color to go to their separate corners. “It can’t be us against them,” he says. “It’s time to lean in. Social work is in the business of leaning in, whether it’s client focused or systems focused.”

Leaning in could change the way police work is conducted and evaluated. Today, officers know which apartment buildings, malls and streets are “hot spots” – places where the most arrests are made, Schnell says. Police become a visible presence to deter crime. But Schnell believes that’s not enough: “We’ve stopped people, written some tickets, made some arrests, but how did we connect people with us? And, equally important, connect people with each other? I would love to see us be as focused on helping people do the right thing as catching them doing the wrong thing.”


Schnell envisions a day when a certain amount of time would be built into each officer’s shift for relationship building. “If we can give people very real experiences of saying, ‘I know one of our cops who walks through our building, and he engages with people, jokes around and knows who we are,’ that will build trust.” Schnell would rather a police officer knock on a mother’s door to talk through concerns that her son is out late and find effective solutions, as opposed to the traditional “locate and arrest” approach. Positive interactions would empower families and neighbors to police themselves, especially in high crime areas.

Schnell also would like to see a system in place to evaluate officers based on effective problem-solving and the number and depth of their community relationships. Although he has the authority to pilot changes, he believes communities should determine what they want in their police and work with them to adopt new guidelines, as a council-appointed task force in Maplewood is doing. Schnell represents the Maplewood police on the community task force.

“Ultimately, we’re talking about fostering participation – genuine engagement with community members to develop relationships and promote civic participation that will empower individuals and communities,” adds Dr. Barbara Shank, Dean of the St. Kate’s — St. Thomas School of Social Work. “A facet of participation is representation by community members in professions such as law enforcement, social work, public leadership and other roles that serve their neighborhoods.”

Schnell would like to convince more social work students to consider an educational and career path that leads to policing or criminal justice. He says the women and people of color who are more present in social work would bring needed diversity to the ranks, along with diversity of perspective. Schnell also believes a social work education would provide police officers with a deeper understanding of systems thinking, communication and the importance of empathy.

That would benefit both police and communities because, Schnell points out, “At the end of the day, a core focus of policing is strengthening community safety. We know the more connected our communities are, the less crime we’re going to have. So as police, we must be community builders.”

This article was published in the Fall 2016 School of Social Work Perspectives newsletter