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Police Versus Community: Why All the Trauma?

Using a trauma-informed lens to understand the promise of community policing.

Isaiah Pickens/Fotolia
Source: Isaiah Pickens/Fotolia

A livid mother aggressively grabs her masked son before he joins the melting pot of rioters, protestors, and police filling the Baltimore backdrop. A picture worth more than a thousand words that aptly captures the ongoing debate in America regarding police brutality and citizen responsibility for community safety—a conversation that recently shifted toward a parent’s role in socializing children to protect themselves. Little else matters when a child’s safety is in the balance—and few life events have as grave of an impact on an individual’s sense of safety as psychological trauma.

The fact about trauma is that it can encompass any event that makes individuals feel their lives or the lives of someone they love are in danger. Any event represents a broad spectrum that transcends race, age, and socio-economic status. That’s probably why we have so many terms for it. Intergenerational traumatic events penetrate beyond the individual and potentially lay the foundation for their progeny to become hypersensitive to perceived threats in the world. Neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart details the ravaging impact intergenerational trauma can have on body and mind when intermingled with drugs and poverty. Vicarious (secondary) trauma occurs when someone simply has constant exposure to the traumatic stories and stress reactions of others—with many citing this as a partial culprit for the high stress among law enforcement. Finally, complex trauma highlights the cumulative impact multiple traumas can have on both community members and those tasked to protect them.

The power of trauma is that it compels us to protect ourselves from threats both real and imagined. At the heart of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are individuals who have done their best to survive a trauma, but continue to respond in the same manner even when that threat is no longer present. As psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk details in his research examining how the body keeps score, when trauma happens repeatedly we become biologically wired to watch for threats to our survival while psychologically narrowing our perceptions for healthy strategies to manage these threats. In the case of a young man of color, this may lead to spankings from Mom to make sure he understands the threats he potentially faces. In turn, the young man may portray himself as more threatening than actually is the case in a preemptive attempt to protect himself. Enough of these encounters with people like the young man and police are responding to the threat they are expecting—not the threat that’s actually present. The cycle of trauma potentially restarted because we are each doing the best we can to protect ourselves and those we love.

Trauma is an explanation for behavior, not an excuse for it.

Having trained NYPD school safety officers and hundreds of staff in the NYC juvenile justice system in trauma, this is a phrase I frequently rely upon to counter the common argument against trauma-informed criminal justice practices: criminals use trauma to manipulate the system. Trauma-informed work in the criminal justice system is a complex enterprise. Both safety and justice must constantly be balanced. The problem with solely having a punitive approach to policing and criminal justice is it only shows people what they can’t do, not what to do instead. If everyone is preparing for threats that may or may not exist, how do you help them filter between the two and make healthier decisions about how to interact with others when unsure about their intentions?

The explanation that trauma-informed practices provide about why a person behaves in a manner to protect oneself gives everyone involved a chance to explore other options for how to handle potentially threatening situations before they turn into crises. During a trauma-based psychoeducational session with a group of incarcerated youth, a young woman described her arrest as unnecessarily violent because she was trying to get her hair untangled from the officer but the officer thought she was trying to get away. She understood she was getting arrested but the way the arrest was approached forced both the officer and the young lady to aggressively defend themselves. What if police were the ones who best understood more than half of the people who come in contact with the justice system have a history of trauma and were best equipped to de-escalate situations with their understanding of the behavior and ensure physical force was only used when necessary? How would community/police relations change if law enforcement based community centers became the hub for community members to learn about both their physical and psychological safety? What type of transformation would occur if mental health professionals translated the academic knowledge we have about trauma into practical tools for law-enforcement to retrain their automatic responses to potential threat? It would probably look like a revolution…because it would be one.

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