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COMMENTARY | Studies show that many police officers suffer trauma on the job. Officer wellness programs can help them better serve their communities.
Public demand for police reform continues unabated nearly a year and a half since the killing of George Floyd. Congress, statehouses and city councils nationwide are weighing a dizzying array of proposals. These efforts are laudable, but most reforms ignore one vexing problem that haunts communities and the men and women who police them: trauma.
We’re both well acquainted with the perils and power of trauma from very different perspectives. One of us is a reform advocate who has lost loved ones to police shootings. And the other is a police chief striving to reduce use-of-force incidents and help officers cope with the psychological impacts of their work.
After meeting several years ago at a crime survivors meeting, we’ve become unlikely allies who conduct “courageous conversations”—meetings where officers acknowledge past harms and listen to residents’ concerns and ideas. Along the way, we’ve developed a shared interest in how trauma affects our community and is often perpetuated by police.
Trauma is caused by exposure to an emotionally disturbing incident or series of events. It can be intermittent or chronic, but one thing is certain: Trauma can have a harmful, long-term impact on the mental, physical, social and emotional well-being of those who experience it.
In communities with high rates of violent crime and concentrated police presence, trauma is omnipresent. Its causes are many, ranging from anxiety caused by the sound of nighttime gunfire to the loss of a loved one to a police shooting. Trauma is inextricably linked with compromised mental wellness, and perversely, in communities where trauma is highest, access to mental health resources is lacking.
In the context of law enforcement, people in a trauma-induced crisis sometimes act out in ways that appear threatening—by shouting profanities in the street, for example, or failing to immediately comply with an officer’s orders. As first responders, police need training to identify such individuals and learn how to safely de-escalate the situation. Too often, officers instead resort to force, which only compounds the trauma.
Such incidents and their sometimes deadly outcomes are, by now, tragically familiar, but there’s another piece to this puzzle—the trauma experienced by police officers. One survey found that six-in-10 male officers and almost half of female officers had experienced five or more traumatic events in the last year alone. Another study found four-in-10 officers at high risk of a mental health condition.
Trauma Impacts More Than Officers
Trauma within police ranks affects not just officers, but also their interactions with family members. One study found that officers with PTSD were four times more likely to self-report engaging in violence at home than those without PTSD. And while the relationship between officer trauma and misconduct on the job is less well established, one recent analysis estimates that PTSD could account for up to 46% of cases of excessive force.
In our work together, we’ve seen firsthand the relationship between unaddressed officer trauma and inappropriate behaviors. At its worst, such conduct amounts to excessive force. But also harmful are more common actions such as failing to communicate empathetically with families of victims of police violence or ignoring their concerns.
Traditionally, cops haven’t talked much about trauma. They were expected to just “suck it up,” and those who did discuss the emotional impacts of the job were considered weak, and even mocked. While that “tough-guy” mentality persists, today we know that such stigma prevents many officers from seeking the help they need.
We also know that officer wellness is interconnected with community wellness, and that officers who understand and address their exposure to trauma are more likely to recognize it in others.
How should we move forward? The Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing advises police agencies to create a culture of support in the workplace, invest in officer wellness programs, and prioritize the early identification of officers who may need treatment.
Making a Difference
Coupled with de-escalation training, which helps officers recognize when people are experiencing mental health crises, and more resources to help community members struggling with trauma, these measures can make a difference.
Several states, including Oklahoma, Louisiana and North Carolina, have passed laws strengthening officer wellness programs with trauma in mind, and trauma-informed training is in use in cities such as Philadelphia, Newark, New Jersey and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As policymakers work to improve the fairness and effectiveness of policing, we urge them to make trauma part of the discussion. Officers who are trained to identify and address trauma in the community, and who have a heightened awareness of their own exposure to stress and trauma, are better equipped to police in a respectful and equitable manner.
And that is a win for all of us.
Tashante McCoy is the founder and regional manager of the Stockton, California-based Crime Survivors for Safety & Justice/The OWL MOVEMENT and serves on the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing. Eric Jones is Chief of the Stockton Police Department in California.
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