Trauma-Informed Policing

Posted on February 15, 2019

Trauma-Informed Policing

Last month I conducted my first Trauma-Informed Policing training with a Police Department in the Metropolitan Denver Area. After hundreds of trainings and thousands of hours of public speaking, I rarely get nervous before my presentations. I will admit, for these trainings, those old butterflies wreaked havoc!

In the preparatory meetings leading up to the first training, I realized I was walking into a whole new world, especially how it related to trauma. I imagine my professional experience with police reflects many of yours. Over the years, I worked with many officers whose compassion, patience, and people skills outshined many of those in our fields. Other officers consistently made tense issues even more stressful and traumatic. In other words, I viewed police officers as I do most professions, there are amazing ones, terrible ones, and most lay somewhere between those extremes.

My sleepless nights were mostly in vain. From a training evaluation perspective, the trainings seemed to go well. Every person I met and interacted with seemed engaged and respectful. However, by the end of the second training I had several people come up to me at the break and say, “really love your training but I disagree with 99% of what you are saying.” What!?!?!

Coming back from that break I challenged the group, “Okay people; I got to call you all out. I’m glad you like me and all, but if you disagree with the science, I’m presenting let’s talk about it don’t just sit there politely, what fun is that?” Most seemed stunned that the touchy-feely therapist would throw out such a challenge. Then, a group that sat mostly silent for two trainings started to open up.

The discussion that followed was so robust and enlightening for me and changed my perceptions of why so often those pushing for social justice seem at odds with police. We don’t talk or listen to one another. As the discussion moved from personal choice to needle exchange to homelessness, I realized the failure on my part and many systems to bring the police to the table as partners. I heard stories of compassion, trauma inherent to their work, and frustrations about why we put so much money into problems like homelessness with little or no improvement that they could identify.

A few things continue to turn in my head weeks after the training. First, the level of trauma experienced by our police. Stories of having to use deadly force, life-threatening situations, and the day-to-day stress of a job where you can’t predict when or where danger will occur explained why many police struggle with burnout. While I’m not providing an excuse from the gross misconduct of some officers, the trauma and stress of the stories I heard helped explained why some officers might take extreme actions due to experiencing retraumatization. An officer struggling with trauma inherent to their job interacting with someone experiencing retraumatization in the community may set up a disastrous situation where mistakes and misunderstanding might escalate into tragedy.

Second, those in our work need to do a better job reaching out to our police departments concerning our evolving understanding of trauma. While trauma-informed might seem like old hat to some of us at this point, most in law enforcement (and the broader criminal justice system) still lack exposure to the science behind the impact of trauma and stress on behavior and challenges such as homelessness and addiction. In my experience, knowledge of trauma increases compassion, patience, and empathy for those providing education, medical care, and social services to those struggling in our society. Helping spread this understanding will do the same for law enforcement and help us establish a shared language that will allow us to work as partners in finding more trauma-informed solutions to problems in our community.

Third, short and simple. Trauma-informed policing is crucial to any thoughts of creating a trauma-informed community. Police deal with people experiencing trauma or struggling because of their trauma history. Few people are better positioned to help refer these folks to services and treatment. The police I trained were frustrated about the lack of services and their perception that these services were often ineffective as the people they referred often showed back up shortly thereafter causing the same safety issues in their community.

Finally, few self-care conversations were as intense as the ones I had in these trainings. Every person I talked to told a story where their lives were at risk. Also, they witnessed the worse trauma any of us could imagine. Then they try to shake it off, go home and resume their role as father, mother, friend and come back to work the next day not knowing what threats or situations await them.

As we start to advocate for trauma-informed communities, establishing shared language, understanding, and partnership with the police is a critical step. We will never reach our goals without addressing the different philosophies, frustrations, and misunderstandings that exist on both sides. The department I worked with had the insight to see that they could take a critical step in this direction by looking at trauma-informed policing whereas many departments are likely unaware that such a concept exists. Where there is a divide, there is an opportunity for healing, partnerships, and growth that will help us address some of the most challenging issues impacting our communities.

7 responses to “Trauma-Informed Policing”

  1. Michael says:

    Fully get your point, police definitely experience trauma and their own humanity should be recognized, but that shouldn’t legitimize a corrupt and racist institution that needs utter transformation if not abolition altogether. I’m sure there are more trauma-informed approaches to warfare, for example, but that doesn’t mean we need war.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Thanks my friend. The question I struggle with is whether institutional problems result from intentional malice or an outdated understanding of human behavior. I know you and I both work relentlessly to help those working with people experiencing homelessness better understand the people they are trying to help. This understanding replaces judgment and illogical policies with compassion and real solutions. So much of the criminal justice system makes little logical sense in light of the neurobiological research. However, a stressed system becomes rigid, more likely to react with force and power, and hurt those by punishing many who just need help and assistance. My hope is that we will all advocate and partner with law enforcement to make meaningful and lasting change. I know it is a great mountain to climb but too many will continue to get hurt if we don’t.

  2. Katherine Cavanaugh says:

    This is an interesting macro trauma question. Can we start with building individual communities that are trauma-informed, and then change an entire system? Or if the system is corrupted, can it ever be fixed? Once there is distrust, anger, and pain in our relationships with our systems, how can we repair those relationships?

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Great question. My simple answer is we must talk to each other more. The police I worked with were frustrated that systems that were supposed to help those experiencing homelessness in their community seemed to fail to address the problem. They would make referrals and drive people to services only to find those same people back on the streets days or weeks later with no visible improvement. They wanted to help and not arrest but the police are not equipped to treat the issues behind homelessness. So many of them don’t understand why providers are not helping those they refer and providers are frustrated with law enforcement approach to homelessness. Obviously, there are answers for each side, yet, without dialogue and partnership, I’m afraid we’ll keep demonizing and working against each other.

  3. Jay S. Levy says:

    Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the fantastic blog!

    Over the years we have done a great deal of work with the police- specifically around homelessness and responding to Mental Health crisis. Throughout MA there has been the implementation of CIT-Crisis Intervention Training w/Police via MH Crisis Teams- which provides officers with the tools and the knowledge of resources to more effectively respond to situations with folks experiencing an acute MH episode.

    Interestingly enough, the world of Housing First Initiatives, By Name Lists via Coordinated Entry, and Safe Havens fits well with some of the concerns that police encounter. We’ve been able to involve them in identifying folks who we would like to get off the streets and housed. Over time, our outreach staff has actually housed some of the folks that the police had really struggled with and they have been quite impressed. Recently, I was at a meeting and an officer remarked, “if you can house that guy w/support services, then you can house anyone… I would have never believed it was possible!” This is in no small part due to fairly well developed and resourced system of care that took years to build…. I am keenly aware that many areas don’t have this to offer.

    So of course you are right that connected to the role of policing is their experience with trauma (both their own and w/others)… there are officers that are easily triggered and may provide a hyper-aroused fight response with not much secondary thinking-impaired judgment. However, getting to that discussion requires a great deal of engagement and appreciation of their culture-daily risks, challenges,and their values- beginning where they are at, which can lead to constructing a common language that can bridge the world of policing to TIC.

    Ultimately, we want to cross-cultural divides via productive dialogue!

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      An amazing example of what is possible! I know many Departments use CIT, I’m hoping that it gives Police the “how” to handle difficult situations and behaviors while a trauma-informed approach provides them the “why,” building patients and compassion. Throw in a little self-care knowledge and a lot of work on both sides to communicate across silos and I believe a better future emerges for everyone. Keep up the amazing work my friend, wonder what our friends over the pond feel about this issue?

  4. Jay S. Levy says:

    Yes… I’ll invite Robin and others to comment on this thread!

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