Nov. 5, 2020
Chris Woodley • email@example.com
Incidents of police shootings this year involving individuals such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have sparked protests and conversations regarding relationships between law enforcement and communities. One Master of Social Work student had preconceived negative thoughts about all police before starting her field placement at a local nonprofit. But her assumptions have changed and now has a new understanding and appreciation for law enforcement.
Bezawit Seyoum began her MSW studies this past August. With an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, she was placed at Serve and Connect, a Columbia-based nonprofit dedicated to fostering positive change through police and community partnerships. Seyoum did not realize until her first meeting at Serve and Connect that she would be working directly with law enforcement. She was initially hesitant and nervous to work with police officers with protests around police violence occurring in cities nationwide. But Seyoum’s negative connotations with police went back to the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013.
“I was greatly influenced because I was always on social media,” Seyoum says. “All I saw were the bad aspects of the police. That influenced me, and I never had any good connotations with law enforcement. I didn't know how to act or what to say when I started at Serve and Connect.”
But Seyoum’s negative impressions changed after meeting with two Columbia Police Department officers. While she was initially did not want to talk with them, she listened as the officers explained their thoughts and experiences between police and communities. This was the first time Seyoum realized that she had never taken the time to listen to the police’s side and their care for the people they serve.
“I took a step back after listening to them for first time, and my heart literally softened at that moment,” Seyoum says. “Afterwards, I made sure to listen to what officers said because I realized that they love their job and are invested in their communities. I had to get off social media to begin to understand that there are good cops.”
While social media may paint a picture of people not wanting to hear or talk about the positive aspects of law enforcement in big cities, Seyoum believes Serve and Connect is helping bridge the gap of trust between police and communities.
“I’ve realized that some people don't take the time to sit and talk to others and understand the work of the police,” Seyoum says. “This field placement has helped me understand that there are good and bad cops, and I was letting the bad ones overtake my thoughts and never gave law enforcement a chance to see the positives.
Building trust within communities leads to positive interactions with law enforcement. Serve and Connect’s programs such as Greg's Groceries, where police officers provide food boxes for people in need, is when trust can be built on small interactions.”
While Seyoum did not initially realize she would be working with police officers, she now understands that Serve and Connect is more than just law enforcement. She was interested in working on an individual basis with clients before starting her field placement. But now, Serve and Connect has given her a new perspective and interest in working with communities and organizations.
“Serve and Connect focuses on so many issues besides law enforcement and communities, such as poverty, housing, food insecurity, youth and women's empowerment,” Seyoum says. “They have a diverse field of services, which really stood out to me. I’m excited to see the different fields within the organization and appreciate all the experiences so far.”
Collaborations between social workers and police departments continue to be implemented or at least discussed in communities around the country. Based on her experiences at Serve and Connect, Seyoum believes social workers can recognize community needs and offer solutions.
“Social work and law enforcement are both people professions,” Seyoum says. “For example, social workers can identify the needs and issues of homelessness and how they can work with police to help and provide services. I’ve seen it work in Columbia with Serve and Connect, and it’s all about having the trust of community and law enforcement and knowing that police are not there to only arrest people or enforce laws.”
Seyoum will be at Serve and Connect for the rest of the academic year, and she believes her experiences and skills that have been developed and enhanced will be essential as a future social worker.
“My field placement has provided me with a good understanding of not being quick to judge or assume,” Seyoum says. “It's important to humble myself, have an open mind, and take a step back to learn.”