An Open Letter to Police Chiefs: The Need for Trauma-informed Policing
Recently, I was provided a form letter addressed to a local police chief and friend of mine who knew of my interest in trauma-informed policing and who thought I should read the letter.
The letter claimed that trauma-informed policing, specifically as it related to domestic violence and sexual violence allegations, was everything from “junk science” to “prejudicial against men.”
Needless to say, I found the letter uninformed and unpersuasive. However, knowing that some police chiefs might be inclined to believe the information, I chose to offer a reply. My reply speaks solely to the benefits of trauma-informed policing, not a rebuttal of each point in the original letter.
I summarized this blog article into a two-page letter which can be downloaded as an attachment to this article. If you find value in or support my explanations, I encourage you to download the two-page letter and send it to any police chief or police officer you know. I’m confident in what I have written and believe it to be helpful.
Download The Two-Page Letter You Can Send To Police Chiefs
In my 23 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, right up to the day I retired, my personal mission was to champion the FBI’s mission: To protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.
I consider the FBI’s mission equivalent in many ways to the well-known mission of most police agencies first adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955: To Protect and Serve.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), an organization with over 31,000 members in 160 countries, captures this simple mandate in its comprehensive code of ethics: As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice. (italics added)
The pressing question for today’s police chief is, “How does my agency ensure it is serving and protecting all community members, to include the weak and oppressed, against violence and disorder?”
Given the current level of trust our society has in policing, finding ways to build or rebuild trust to a higher level is imperative.
An August 2020 Gallup poll found only “fifty-six percent of White adults and 19% of Black adults say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police.”
The poll makes obvious that prior actions by law enforcement, as well as other unmentioned segments of our society, have severely called into question a law enforcement agency’s ability to protect and serve all people. We know that without trust, citizen cooperation plummets. Consequently, a lack of cooperation results in underreported crimes, disappearing suspects, reduced investigative leads, and unsolved cases. The results are even more appalling in poverty-stricken or low-income communities.
Whether geographically or demographically considered, traumatic violence significantly impacts people’s lives, undermines their ability to provide for and raise a family, and erodes the fabric of our society which is based on mutual trust and respect for all people.
Some people and organizations want you to believe that recognizing this trauma and understanding how it affects subjects as well as victims goes against sound and proven evidence-based techniques.
However, based on my personal and professional experience, I know there is scientific evidence to support the need for law enforcement officers to be trauma informed. I also know that by being trauma informed law enforcement can build or rebuild its trust with the community and fulfill its mission to protect and serve.
Specifically, I want to share with you four reasons trauma-informed policing is an effective model for police agencies to adopt and the natural evolution and advancement of good policing.
1. Being Trauma Informed is Scientifically Researched and Evidenced Based
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines individual trauma as: “an event, series of events or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (2014a, p.7).
While there are other nuanced definitions of trauma, SAMSHA’s definition has been widely recognized as the starting point for defining what constitutes trauma. Unfortunately, much of the trauma an individual experiences occurs in childhood when the brain is most malleable. These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) often carry over into adulthood and affect a person’s physical and mental health as well as their ability to gain employment, maximize education, or succeed in the workplace.
A scientific study conducted in the 1990s, and replicated dozens of times with similar outcomes, found the 10 most common types of trauma are: physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect, and household dysfunctions such as domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration, and parental separation. These traumatic events (i.e., ACEs) demonstrated a “4- to 12- fold increase in health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempts” to name just a few detrimental effects.
The rates of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse or physical and emotional neglect do not exclude law enforcement officers! There is no immunity from trauma simply because a person pinned on a badge and strapped on a gun.
In the criminal justice domain, trauma has been scientifically linked to an increase in the odds of arrest and incarceration. Studies have shown that nearly half of all incarcerated women and a third of incarcerated men have a lifetime history of post-traumatic stress. In fact, scientific research has “found that individuals who experience more types of ACEs are also more likely to be serious, violent, and chronic offenders.”
The correlation between trauma and potential encounters with law enforcement is undisputed. The question isn’t whether being trauma-informed is an important law enforcement model, the question is, “When is my agency going to embrace a trauma-informed approach to policing?”
Frankly, there is no plausible way these scientific studies or their results can be considered as “junk science.”
2. Being Trauma-Informed is a Widely Recognized Approach to Domestic Violence Investigations
As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and acknowledged by the IACP, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Unfortunately, according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics for 2019, 64% of rapes or sexual assaults were not reported to the police.
If law enforcement’s mission is to protect and serve, then it is imperative more rape and sexual assault victims learn to trust the police and report their victimization so the allegations can be properly investigated. If evidence of the crime meets prosecutorial standards, then successful prosecutions will increase, and violent perpetrators will be held accountable.
This statement is not just my opinion but is promoted by the IACP as part of their Trauma Informed Sexual Assault Investigation Training program. The goal of the program is to “strengthen the capacity of law enforcement to provide effective response to victims of sexual assault while simultaneously holding offenders accountable. The training provides information on the neurobiological impact of trauma, the influence of societal myths and stereotypes, understanding perpetrator behavior, and conducting effective investigations.”
Some people question whether taking a trauma informed approach somehow limits or impedes an investigation. The IACP effectively counters this argument by providing an evidence-based framework for conducting sexual assault investigations.
Being trauma informed and conducting sound investigations are not incompatible or mutually exclusive. Rather, being trauma informed helps explain a victim’s state of mind and ability to recall facts after a violent event.
When an uninformed approach might result in casually dismissing a complaint and not initiating a robust investigation, being trauma informed allows the officer to accept that explicit details from the victim may not always be as forthcoming or detailed and that’s okay.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a recognized expert on trauma and the body, said this about trauma and its effect on memory: While trauma may leave an indelible imprint, when people start talking about these sensations, and try to make meaning of them, it is transcribed into ordinary memory, and, like all ordinary memory, it is prone to become distorted. People seem to be unable to accept experiences that have no meaning; they will try to make sense of what they are feeling.
While a lack of specificity may make for more work in proving the charge, it doesn’t mean the victim is lying, embellishing, or exaggerating. They, too, are looking for answers! Simply put, the brain is doing is job by protecting the victim from being irreparably harmed due to the trauma when it prevents detailed recall of events.
3. Being Trauma-Informed is Vital for Addressing Officer Suicide
Policing has often been cited as one of the most stressful occupations imaginable. A police officer’s responsibilities provide a unique source of stress which often develops from regular exposure to traumatic events.
The average citizen has no real appreciation for what officers must do or the threats they must face on a daily basis. Any single event or the repetition of multiple events can and do lead to primary and secondary levels of victimization. In the end, trauma interferes and disrupts the safe performance of an officer’s job.
One byproduct of officer trauma is that the law enforcement profession has the highest level of suicide among all professions. It is so prevalent, recently three times the number of police officers died by suicide than were killed in the line of duty.
We heavily promote officer well-being and rightly so. However, promoting an officer’s physical and mental health while discounting a subject’s or victim’s mental health is not only hypocritical, it is disingenuous, dishonest, and deceitful.
What is required of law enforcement is a paradigm shift that moves from asking the basic question of “What’s wrong with you?” towards finding the complete story behind a person’s behavior and motivation by asking, “What happened to you?”
Law enforcement officers do not have to be social workers or therapists to understand that many people, including themselves, have been traumatized and victimized. Being trauma-informed is a mindset that acknowledges that a person’s life history, particularly their childhood history, affects their present actions, attitudes, and lives.
4. Being Trauma-informed is Necessary for Effective Leadership
Some people want you to believe that being trauma informed is contrary to good, fundamental, police work and good leadership. I believe nothing could be further from the truth.
Being trauma informed builds trust, builds relationships, and builds the foundation for effective policing in the twenty-first century.
Stephen Covey was right when he said, “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are -- or, as we are conditioned to see it.”
How do you see the world of policing? How were you conditioned to see it and how might it have evolved?
Your communities, your departments, and your officers demand and require an improvement in trust from law enforcement as a whole. Your willingness to implement policies and procedures which incorporate trauma-informed principles will help your agency conduct better investigations, build better relationships, and ensure better results.
I respectfully encourage you to investigate the principles and teachings behind the promotion of trauma-informed policing and reach your own conclusions. Whether I or someone else helps you, please don’t dismiss a valid and important resource and tool for law enforcement.
P.S. For more information on “(Re)Building Trust: A Trauma-informed Approach to Leadership,” please visit my website mrchrisfreeze.com.
P.S.S. If you think someone would enjoy and benefit from receiving this weekly email, please forward it to them and ask them to subscribe at http://bit.ly/2NEcUa0. Thank you.
P. Colin Bolger and Glenn D. Walters, “The relationship between police procedural justice, police legitimacy, and people's willingness to cooperate with law enforcement: A meta-analysis,”Journal of Criminal Justice 60 (2019): 93–99.
 Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, Koss MP, Marks JS, “Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.” Am J Prev Med. 1998 May 14(4): 245-58, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9635069/.
Jessica M. Craig, Michael T. Baglivio, Kevin T. Wolff, Alex R. Piquero, and Nathan Epps, “Do Social Bonds Buffer the Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Reoffending?” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 2017, Vol. 15(1) 3-20.
Van Der Kolk, B. A. (1998). Trauma and memory: Trauma and memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52(S1), S57–S69.
Colwell, L.H., Lyons, P.M., Bruce, A.J., Garner, R.L., & Miller, R.S. (2011). Police officers' cognitive appraisals for traumatic events: Implications for treatment and training. [Electronic Version].Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice, 7(2), 106-132.
Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash