What I Learned From Presenting a Trauma-Informed Class to Police Chiefs

What I Learned From Presenting a Trauma-Informed Class to Police Chiefs

I'm pretty sure I learned as much or more about trauma-informed policing while presenting the class as did the police chiefs who attended.

After not presenting at all during 2020, I was excited to be invited to present a block of instruction on Trauma-Informed Leadership for Police Chiefs at the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police 2021 Winter Conference.

There were about 50 chiefs in attendance on January 14, 2021, and while we all had to deal with the COVID precautions, it was good to meet in person. Real good.

I learned a few things about myself, about the chiefs, and about being trauma informed that I think are worth sharing. First,

I was reminded that being trauma-informed is really a mindset, not really a 5- or 10- or 12-step checklist.  

I've read extensively on trauma, I've listened to experienced speakers talk about being trauma informed, and I've worked at being trauma informed myself.

It would be great if there were some 12-step program you could share that would change people's perspectives, change an agency's culture, and change the world.

Unfortunately, I'm convinced more than ever that while being trauma informed is vital to sustainable change, there is no easy fix. I'm convinced that sustainable change requires a commitment which few people, in the present scheme of things, are willing to embrace. Why? Because being trauma informed is more of a mindset than a detailed map.

Are there things we should be doing when it comes to trauma-informed policies and procedures? Absolutely!

But like anything, implementing a new policy or procedure and thinking that will result in the desired change is wishful thinking. 

Which brings me to the second thing I learned:

Stephen Covey was right. “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are -- or, as we are conditioned to see it.”

Whether it's called Trauma-informed Care, Trauma-informed Policing, Trauma-informed Systems, or Trauma-informed Leadership, being trauma informed requires not just new policies and procedures but a significant paradigm shift.

Think about it. We've been conditioned for years that the world is becoming more chaotic, more dangerous, and more divisive. And it may be. Or it might not be.

Every time we have an event such as what happened at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, it confirms our beliefs even if such events are anomalies. And, it doesn't matter which side of the argument you're on - you see the world as you have been conditioned to see it, not always as it really is.

When it comes to policing, some people argue vociferously that the police are broken, out of control, and dangerous to the lives of people, especially people of color.

Others would argue as loudly that the police aren't broken and that because other elements of society are broken it is the police that provide the last line of defense between civility and civil war.

Which reinforced the third thing I learned:

What is broken in our society is trust: trust in ourselves, trust in our personal relationships, and trust in our fellow human beings.

For police officers, that brokenness can spill over into broken trust with fellow police officers, with victims, and with entire communities.

And that's the challenge of being trauma informed. A 12-step checklist is not going to immediately fix generations of broken trust.

What will help restore trust is being trauma responsive. Being trauma responsive means that after you have been informed about the impacts and effects of trauma, you change how you see people, interact with people, and lead people.

Being trauma responsive is what will help rebuild the trust between police officers and the people with whom they engage - at all levels. Since my experience is that people often look to the police to solve their problems, even when they aren't "crime" problems, I believe it is trauma-informed leadership that will make the difference in our society.

What trauma-informed classes and trainings can do is provide an insight into trauma and a framework for how then to respond to people. The cynic would say, "You're just asking people to be nicer towards others, right?"

Well, that would be a start.

But, what I think those of us who are speaking, training, and advocating for being trauma informed are really asking is that people seek to find ways to build trust with people with whom they have some type of relationship.

Former FBI Director Jim Comey often said, "It's hard to hate up close."

He's right. It's easy to write hateful and hurtful emails, tweets, and Facebook posts toward people we have never met. It's an entirely different conversation when you are sitting down face-to-face and talking. Why? Because meeting and talking face-to-face (or even over Zoom) is the first step towards building a relationship which leads to building trust. 

Which brings me to my fourth and last lesson learned from the conference:

Police officers took up their profession because they want to help people and being a trauma-informed police officer fits squarely within their passion.

What they do need is a new paradigm, a change in certain policies, and a willingness to practice over and over until being trauma informed is as natural as every other element of their training.

We know relationships can be difficult. Building relationships with people when stress is high, time is limited, and safety is paramount, is a huge challenge for even the best of us. Having a trauma-informed mindset is the first step for effective policing in today's society.

If you're reading this and are either a police officer or know a police officer whom you think would benefit from trauma-informed training, please consider sharing with them this post and my contact information. I'd be honored to share with their department what I've learned about trauma-informed leadership.