While we like to think of our law enforcement officers as stoic, strong, and resilient, officers are not immune from the effects of trauma simply because they wear a uniform, enforce the law, or carry a badge and gun.
Precisely because of their profession, they experience both primary and secondary trauma at higher levels due to their proximity to death, illness, accidents, and crimes.[i] While traumatic experiences are not always violent, they can and do elicit feelings of “fear, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair” which are “often subjectively experienced as a threat to the person’s survival.”[ii]
In other words, the threat of survival in a traumatic situation goes both ways, between officer and citizen, no matter how it is portrayed in the media.
Intuitively, we understand that trust is critical for police officers’ ability to serve and protect their community. However, as a result of the trauma experienced by both officers and citizens, trust can be, and often is, compromised.
Successfully building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve is dependent upon being hope-centered and trauma-informed. Implementing a hope-centered, trauma-informed approach begins with understanding “the extent of traumatic experiences in the human population and an understanding of the ways in which trauma responses affect people’s lives, capacities, and abilities to cope with life’s challenges.”[iii]
In other words, educating everyone and implementing trauma-informed and responsive policies and practices will exponentially help interactions between law enforcement officers and citizens.
Both law enforcement officers and citizens need to know it’s not weird or wrong to have strong emotions or the lingering effects of trauma as a result of life events.
Unfortunately, in some police cultures, officers may wrongly see themselves as weak or abnormal if they seek professional help for the trauma they experience. This culture can lead officers to fear they will be disciplined or dismissed for how they experience or respond to trauma. However, without help officers may begin responding to stress with apathy, absenteeism, and (substance) abuse.[iv]
I want all police officers to know that repeated exposure to stress (i.e., trauma) can impact a person’s behavior, emotions, and cognitive functioning. Many of the people officers seek to help are fully enveloped in their own long-term effects of the trauma. Combine their trauma with an officer’s trauma and the potential for escalation is amplified.
Consequently, both officers and citizens can exhibit symptoms of “dissociation, diminished problem-solving abilities, inaccurate memory, blunted emotional responses, and depersonalization.” Additional symptoms include “burnout, reduced awareness, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, increased blood pressure, shallow breathing, and sleeping problems.”[v]
Unfortunately, the results of trauma and lack of trust don’t stop when an officer returns from the street and walks into the police station. National surveys and research among law enforcement officers have demonstrated that “lack of trust among co-workers was positively correlated with both burnout and physical stress, and negatively correlated with health.”[vi]
In other words, police officers are caught in the middle between what they experience on the street and what they experience in the precinct.
Within the law enforcement profession, we need to help officers not only manage their stress, but also seek to eliminate their stress as much as possible. Why just cope with stress when you can remove it?
The results of removing or decreasing stress have a direct relationship with an officer’s cognitive and executive functioning. When officers are already stressed because of the trauma they routinely experience, they start operating with decreased executive function at a time when executive function is most needed and expected by the public.[vii]
The good news is that trust can be built, and trauma reduced, but it takes preparation, patience, and practice.
Implementing a trauma-informed approach to policing begins with the senior law enforcement official.
Commissioners, chiefs, sheriffs, and directors need to publicly and widely communicate throughout the agency the paradigm shift of moving from traditional responses to trauma-informed responses.
Research has shown that officers are most affected by organizational stress. These stressors include “(a) being “second-guessed” in field work, (b) punishment for “minor” infractions, (c) lack of rewards for jobs well done, (d) fear of being “de-gunned” (official removal of an officer’s service revolver as well as any personal weapons) for stress or personal problems, and (e) low morale.[viii]
Research has also shown a strong correlation between increased stress, hopelessness, and suicide. Interestingly, the increased levels of hopelessness were not directly related to increased danger, but to an increase in administrative practices, lack of support from the agency, and lack of support from fellow officers.[ix]
The first place to start in developing a new culture of trust is to prepare for a new culture by changing existing policies and procedures from “the way it’s always been done,” to a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive approach.
However, change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and patience to build a culture of trust if trust has been lacking. Being trauma-informed and trauma-responsive takes time and is not a “quick fix.”
Leaders must understand that people are shaped and conditioned by their past experiences and that their decisions are not made in a vacuum. Leaders must engage people where they are, not where they wish they were.
For policing to work, the public must learn to trust officers who patrol their neighborhoods, and the police need to feel they can trust the residents.
“In other words, trust matters, and since trust is a reciprocal relationship, trust matters in both directions.”[x]
As we all know, mistakes happen because we are all human. Sometimes we take two steps forward and then we take one, two, or three steps backward. How leaders respond to those regressions will determine whether sustained improvements are made and whether trust is restored.
Studies have shown that officers who believe decisions are made fairly (e.g., promotions, concerns, treatment, decisions) improve their performance, advance organizational goals, and develop better behaviors both internally and externally.[xi]
Practice is something we all know is important, but few of us are willing to undertake. We say we “don’t have time” or we will “work it out on the fly.” However, implementing change takes trauma-informed leaders who are willing to find ways to create an environment where employees can share their feelings without fear of reprisal or embarrassment. And that takes practice.
“Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection. That’s why healthy relationships are difficult for wounded people.” - Ryan North
You might think this quote pertains to personal relationships. However, it is equally suitable for our professional relationships. When we walk through the office door (or into a zoom room), we don't magically leave our experiences at the threshold. We always carry them. Our past experiences affect our current circumstances.
It’s how we understand and respond to traumatic events that can make all the difference in the world for both law enforcement and the public. I think both officers and citizens deserve to hear and know there’s a better way forward; they deserve to know there is hope for a better tomorrow.
Photo by King's Church International on Unsplash
[i]Vasiliki Romosiou, Andreas Brouzos & Stephanos P. Vassilopoulos (2019) An integrative group intervention for the enhancement of emotional intelligence, empathy, resilience and stress management among police officers, Police Practice and Research, 20:5, 460-478.
[ii]Melanie Randall and Lori Haskell, “Trauma-Informed Approaches to Law: Why Restorative Justice Must Understand Trauma and Psychological Coping,” The Dalhousie Law Journal, January 2013, 36 (2013): 501-533.
[iv]Chad L. Cross, Ph.D., and Larry Ashley, Ed.S., LADC, “Police Trauma and Addiction: Coping with the Dangers of the Job,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2004, 24-32.
[v]Charles L. Gutshall, David P. Hampton Jr., Ismail M. Sebetan, Paul C. Stein & Thomas J. Broxtermann (2017) The effects of occupational stress on cognitive performance in police officers, Police Practice and Research, 18:5, 463-477.
[vi]Lily Chi-Fang Tsai, Claire Angelique R. I. Nolasco & Michael S. Vaughn (2018) Modeling job stress among police officers: interplay of work environment, counseling support, and family discussion with co-workers, Police Practice and Research, 19:3, 253-269.
[vii]Gutshall, et. al.
[viii]Evangelia Demou, Hannah Hale & Kate Hunt (2020): Understanding the mental health and wellbeing needs of police officers and staff in Scotland, Police Practice and Research, DOI: 10.1080/15614263.2020.1772782
[ix]Gutshall, et. al.
[x]James D. Carr & Sheila Royo Maxwell (2018) Police officers’ perceptions of organizational justice and their trust in the public, Police Practice and Research, 19:4, 365-379.