Trauma-Informed Policing: Part Two of a Four-Part Series
This post is part of the “Trauma-Informed Criminal Justice” series. Read the introduction and view other posts here.
Police officers are continually exposed to traumatic incidents and the victims, witnesses and perpetrators involved. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, trauma results from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening.” Trauma impacts cognitive ability, problem-solving, decision-making and memory and influences the interactions, perceptions and decisions people make.
Trauma-informed policing trains officers to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and understand how trauma influences behavior and interactions with others. In 2019, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) adopted a resolution “encouraging all law enforcement agencies to become well informed about the correlation between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and numerous negative outcomes,” including justice system involvement in adolescence and adulthood. There is still no systematic process for sharing trauma-informed resources and promoting them within law enforcement agencies.
Trauma-informed approaches increase public safety, decrease officer stress and burnout, and improve victim outcomes. Officer recruitment and retention is a national crisis, and officer suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. Officers and law enforcement administrators must prioritize trauma-informed policing for the benefit of their staff and community members.
Trauma and Police-Citizen Interactions
The vast majority of police-citizen interactions are routine and uneventful. Only 2 percent of people who interacted with police in 2020 experienced threats or use of force. Handcuffing was the most prevalent form of force used, and the majority of police-initiated contact came from traffic stops. Police are trained to treat traffic stops as “highly dangerous” and “potentially fatal,” resulting in a pervasive state of heightened emotional arousal and vigilance. Training videos and simulations emphasize the less than 1 percent of extreme cases of serious injury or felonious killing of a police officer wherein the weapon most commonly used was “the driver’s or passenger’s hands, fists or feet.” Such training contributes to vicarious trauma and influences officer response.
Ten percent of people who die at the hands of law enforcement do so during traffic stops. Though African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 28 percent of those killed in traffic stops, which contributes to vicarious trauma among Black people.
The mutual, reinforcing vicarious trauma experienced by both police and communities of color changes their worldview, resulting in mutual cynicism and fear—a contagion that jeopardizes the safety and well-being of everyone involved.
Similarly, highly publicized use-of-force incidents in response to individuals in crisis can result in cyclical vicarious trauma among police and the community. Twenty percent of police calls for service (a figure that has increased in recent years) involve individuals experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis. Though most people with mental illness are not violent, they are far more likely to be killed by police than members of the general public.
The police response—including lights, sirens and an officer in uniform—can exacerbate symptoms, backing individuals and officers into a corner. Traditional use-of-force tactics are ineffective; however, officers lacking mental health, crisis intervention or deescalation training may see no alternative. Twenty-five percent of police shooting deaths involve people in “the throes of emotional or mental crisis.” These incidents harm police-community relationships and are traumatic for all parties.
Lastly, advances in technology have contributed to an increase in the most stressful types of crime police officers respond to and investigate: crimes against or involving children, sex crimes and domestic or intimate partner violence. Officers working these crimes have higher exposure rates to traumatic images and information. The strength and outcomes of their investigations depend on their ability to interview victims effectively. The IACP offers guidance on trauma-informed approaches to building rapport, interviewing victims and understanding the role that trauma plays in victim interactions. They also provide support and resources for officers and their families. Even so, the stigma associated with police experiencing mental stress (or the perceived burden it puts on their families) prevents many officers from seeking professional assistance.
Trauma and Officer Wellness
Despite offering job security, good wages, health benefits and a pension, law enforcement agencies across the country are struggling to recruit and retain quality officers. Reasons for this staffing shortage include public perception of police and outdated hiring policies and practices. Operating below staffing levels burdens the existing rank and file, contributing to low morale, overwork and burnout.
Officers are asked to serve more people with fewer resources, while the people they serve present with a host of complex public health problems. Juxtaposed with staffing and resource shortages, increased crime and the response needed for vulnerable citizens can produce deadly outcomes for officers and those they serve.
Repeated exposure to traumatic incidents, a lack of suicide prevention training and the immediate availability of a service weapon place officers at an increased risk for depression and suicidality compared to other occupations. Law enforcement officers experience depression and PTSD at a rate five times higher than the general population, and police are more likely to die from suicide than to be killed in the line of duty. Police culture, socialization, stigma and isolation from the larger community make it difficult for officers to acknowledge or seek help for psychological distress.
Multiple crises face law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. The rank and file are asked to do more, with less, for increasingly vulnerable populations. Because both groups are already reciprocally and vicariously traumatized by previous interactions, the traditional police response should be critically reevaluated to include trauma-informed policies and practices. When law enforcement is adequately equipped to address society’s needs—and when they have the tools to support their own emotional and physical well-being—the outcomes are better for all involved.
According to the Guide for a Trauma-Informed Law Enforcement Initiative, police need trauma-informed training because 1) they are often in situations where they experience trauma; 2) they frequently respond to individuals experiencing trauma; and 3) the communities most likely to be the focus of community policing are the same communities that may have suffered (or are currently suffering) trauma due to economic and racial injustices, police brutality and/or other recent events. In 2019, police in Dallas, Texas, used the Victims of Crime Act’s Victim Assistance Formula Grant Program to develop the First Responder Resiliency Program, which aims to help first responders prepare for and cope with the impact of repeated trauma while changing the stigma associated with asking for help. Another initiative supporting the use of trauma-informed policies and practices asserts that when police “understand the impact of trauma, they will better appreciate the serious challenges that people within the community face each day, especially those impacted by trauma.” Only then can both groups heal and move toward a collaborative effort to reduce violence and trauma in the community.