20/20 (20 minutes of writing for 20 days): 7-8 Our Police, Ourselves

When I send my officers out each day I say to them “Just come back alive.  Make sure you come back.” (pauses) I am not sure that that should be my biggest concern but that is what I think about every day.

Police Captain at a community forum on policing


I have two adult male children—brown children.  When they leave the house, I say “Be careful out there.  If you get stopped by an officer get down on your face. Do not give them any reason to harm you.  I want you to come back to me.”

Staff Member of a Community Police Commission in a large metropolitan area


And so, this is where we are: the police and the community encountering one another in fear.  I am not sure what good can come of this. 

I participated in a fascinating forum about “trauma-informed law enforcement” and before it began I wondered whose trauma we would be discussing: victims of crime, police, or other community members?  It turns out the conversation was about all three, and I left wondering if trauma-based analysis might, perhaps, point to a way out of the mutual fear, and the attendant hostility that seems to be a growing feature of our police/community encounters.

Listening to officers and then community members, it seems that it is not popular to acknowledge the needs of the “other” side.  Officers want compliance from community members so they can go after the bad people; community members want to reign in police forces that are out of control.

I know—this is an over simplistic dichotomy, but this is how I experience the discourse on policing today.  And maybe the dichotomy is not too simplistic if one considers the sources and content of the quotes above.

So, let’s talk about trauma.*

Many (if not the majority) of police encounters with community members include some form of trauma. After all, people call the police typically when something has gone wrong.  Victims, by definition, have experienced a traumatizing event. Even small crimes against people or property can leave people feeling vulnerable and wondering if it will happen again. The more serious the crime (or even a close encounter with such crime) the deeper the physiological response; a response that can be debilitating in the short and longer term.

At times, the trauma is caused by the encounter with the police officer itself.

At times it is long-term, carried by community members because of adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, exploding in violence against others or self-harm.

Officers too experience trauma.  They experience it in the often-horrific stories they hear time and time again from victims, from threatening experiences, from viewing dead or severely injured human bodies, and from pulling up on a call with uncertainty born out of vague descriptions of what they are about to encounter (man in possession of multiple weapons, shooting victim with unknown injuries, etc.).

And so, we find ourselves in a situation in which it is not unusual for BOTH parties in a police/citizen encounter to be experiencing, or having had experienced, trauma—acute or chronic. We are learning more about what trauma can do to a person in terms of actions and reactions; responses to trauma are rarely “healthy” or neutral.

A few anecdotes on trauma from the (female, African American) Supervisor of the Cambridge, MA Police Department:Sometime

  • Not long after having experienced the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators, a report came in of an active shooter at MIT. The description on the call included information that the person was heavily armed and moving from room to room shooting people.  Upon arriving at the scene and preparing for action, the police learned that the whole thing was a hoax.The Supervisor went on to describe what happened next: the officers were sent back out on duty.  There was no debrief.  There was no processing of their state of mind in the buildup to the action they were about to undertake.  There was no discussion of their needs. Compassion requires us to ask, I believe, what each of us would do were we to find ourselves in such a situation and what our needs might be afterward.
  • In the aftermath of police shootings around the country, and then the shooting of police officers in Dallas, a Black Lives Matter coalition held a prayer rally in Cambridge. Participants were feeling the secondary effects of events that were difficult for the entire nation, and many at the vigil had experienced negative and, arguably, traumatizing encounters with the police themselves. And on that day the police too were feeling vulnerable, fearing a copycat action.  Though there was no intelligence to this effect, the police heavily armed themselves and brought out an armored personnel carrier into the streets. Trauma and fear, facing trauma and fear.  The Supervisor, to her credit, acknowledged how wrong-headed the police response was.  She shared the reaction of community members participating in the vigil who timidly approached the armored “tank” and knocked, inviting the officers to come out.  They wanted to know whether the police were actually expecting violence and whether there was something they should know.

These anecdotes could be and are being repeated over and over in communities across the nation.  Police in my own town, after obtaining a mine resistant, armor-protected vehicle (MRAP), expressed their conviction that such an object was necessary to protect them in a variety of (largely hypothetical) situations.

These stories are not about Cambridge they are about us.

I share the first anecdote to remind us that our police, while granted significant powers and a monopoly on the use of force, are humans.  They face trauma and, arguably need help in dealing with it.

I share the second anecdote to help explain why things seem to go wrong far too often in encounters between officer and community members.  Can we understand these things?  Can we acknowledge that we are dealing with real human problems that must be addressed?

And so, I am thinking about these things.  I am thinking about them particularly in the context of civilian oversight of police and I conclude, at least partially and at least initially, the following:

  1. We have a lot of work to do in deepening our understanding of the causes and effects of trauma. Initial work on ACEs shows that childhood trauma lingers into adulthood affecting both mental and physical health outcomes. And while we seem to be finally acknowledging the reality of PTSD in former military personnel, I wonder if we are prepared to extend that acknowledgement to police officers (and other first responders).
  2. Police need tools to engage victims with a deeper understanding of trauma. This is important, not just for cases of domestic violence and sexual assault (logical places to start—but where there has been VERY little done to date), but for encounters with all victims of crime, and victims of police abuse. By tools, I am talking both about how officers and investigators approach victims—are they merely a means to the end of capturing a perpetrator?—and how they engage them in conversation.  In other words, do police officers know how to interview and treat victims to help them feel safe, protected; offering them options for what they might do now that a crime has been committed against them?  This is an emerging field and one that merits attention.
  3. As a community, we need to view crime itself through the lens of trauma. We are so careful to NOT want to excuse crime and bad behavior. I get that.  But I fear that we lack compassion for perpetrators of crime.  We assume things about them and their motives without a passing thought of the role that trauma might play in their actions.  This is a domain in which restorative justice and processes can really help us.  I understand the hesitation of going down a path that would seem to excuse bad behavior in the name of justice, but given what we know, how can we not take the time to seek accountability on the part of those who commit crime, while acknowledging the real-life challenges they often face?
  4. As a community, we need to view police behavior itself through the lens of trauma. We are so careful to NOT want to excuse the abuse of power by the police. I get that.  But I fear that we lack compassion for police officers, perhaps BECAUSE they have so much power. This is a domain in which restorative justice and processes can really help us.  I understand the hesitation of going down a path that would seem to excuse the bad behavior of police officers, but given what we know, how can we not take the time to seek accountability on the part of those who abuse their positions, while acknowledging the real-life challenges they often face?

Perhaps what I am suggesting, and I have not fully played this out in my mind, is that trauma-informed law enforcement must go hand in hand with trauma-informed police oversight.  The question must always be: “what will lead to just outcomes and healing in our communities?”

I invite feedback on these issues.


*  Definition of trauma from the American Psychological Association: Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.


James Johnson, August 11, 2016 Washington Post “There’s trauma on both sides of the police-community relationship.”

www.acestoohigh.com – good resources on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

Donna Kelly and Julie Valentine The Science of Neurobiology of Sexual Assault Trauma and the Utah Legal System (discusses trauma informed interview techniques to be used by police officers and investigators)








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