Our Police, Ourselves

By Robb Davis

When I send my officers out each day I say to them “Just come back alive.  Make sure you come back.” (pauses) I am not sure that that should be my biggest concern but that is what I think about every day.

Police Captain at a community forum on policing

I have two adult male children—brown children.  When they leave the house, I say “Be careful out there.  If you get stopped by an officer get down on your face. Do not give them any reason to harm you.  I want you to come back to me.”

Staff Member of a Community Police Commission in a large metropolitan area

And so, this is where we are: the police and the community encountering one another in fear.  I am not sure what good can come of this.

I participated in a fascinating forum about “trauma-informed law enforcement” and before it began I wondered whose trauma we would be discussing: victims of crime, police, or other community members?  It turns out the conversation was about all three, and I left wondering if trauma-based analysis might, perhaps, point to a way out of the mutual fear, and the attendant hostility that seems to be a growing feature of our police/community encounters.

Listening to officers and then community members, it seems that it is not popular to acknowledge the needs of the “other” side.  Officers want compliance from community members so they can go after the bad people; community members want to reign in police forces that are out of control.

I know—this is an over simplistic dichotomy, but this is how I experience the discourse on policing today.  And maybe the dichotomy is not too simplistic if one considers the sources and content of the quotes above.

So, let’s talk about trauma. *

Many (if not the majority) of police encounters with community members include some form of trauma. After all, people call the police typically when something has gone wrong.  Victims, by definition, have experienced a traumatizing event. Even small crimes against people or property can leave people feeling vulnerable and wondering if it will happen again. The more serious the crime (or even a close encounter with such crime) the deeper the physiological response; a response that can be debilitating in the short and longer term.

At times, trauma might be caused by the encounter with a police officer itself.

At times it is long-term, carried by community members because of adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, exploding in violence against others or self-harm.

Officers too experience trauma.  They experience it in the often-horrific stories they hear time and time again from victims, from threatening experiences, from viewing dead or severely injured human bodies, and from pulling up on a call with uncertainty born out of vague descriptions of what they are about to encounter (man in possession of multiple weapons, shooting victim with unknown injuries, etc.).

And so, we find ourselves in a situation in which it is not unusual for BOTH parties in a police/citizen encounter to be experiencing, or having had experienced, trauma—acute or chronic. We are learning more about what trauma can do to a person in terms of actions and reactions; responses to trauma are rarely “healthy” or neutral.

A few anecdotes on trauma from the (female, African American) Supervisor of the Cambridge, MA Police Department:

  • Not long after having experienced the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators, a report came in of an active shooter at MIT. The description on the call included information that the person was heavily armed and moving from room to room shooting people.  Upon arriving at the scene and preparing for action, the police learned that the whole thing had been a hoax. The Supervisor went on to describe what happened next: the officers were sent back out on duty.  There was no debrief.  There was no processing of their state of mind in the buildup to the action they were about to undertake.  There was no discussion of their needs. Compassion requires us to ask, I believe, what each of us would do were we to find ourselves in such a situation and what our needs might be afterward.
  • In the aftermath of police shootings around the country, and then the shooting of police officers in Dallas, a Black Lives Matter coalition held a prayer rally in Cambridge. Participants were feeling the secondary effects of events that were difficult for the entire nation, and many at the vigil had experienced negative and, arguably, traumatizing encounters with the police themselves. And on that day the police too were feeling vulnerable; fearing a copycat action.  Though there was no intelligence to this effect, the police heavily armed themselves and brought out an armored personnel carrier into the streets. Trauma and fear, facing trauma and fear.  The Supervisor, to her credit, acknowledged how wrong-headed the police response was.  She shared the reaction of community members participating in the vigil who timidly approached the armored “tank” and knocked, inviting the officers to come out.  They wanted to know whether the police were actually expecting violence and whether there was something they should know.

These anecdotes could be and are being repeated over and over in communities across the nation.  Police in Davis, after obtaining a mine resistant, armor-protected vehicle (MRAP), expressed their conviction that such an object was necessary to protect them and the community in a variety of situations.

These stories are not about Cambridge they are about all of us.

I share the first anecdote to remind us that our police, while granted significant powers and a monopoly on the use of force, are human.  They face trauma and, arguably need help in dealing with it.

I share the second anecdote to help explain why things seem to go wrong far too often in encounters between officer and community members.  Can we understand these things?  Can we acknowledge that we are dealing with real human problems that must be addressed?

And so, I am thinking about these things.  I am thinking about them particularly in the context of civilian oversight of police and I conclude, at least partially and at least initially, the following:

  1. We have a lot of work to do in deepening our understanding of the causes and effects of trauma. Initial work on ACEs shows that childhood trauma lingers into adulthood affecting both mental and physical health outcomes. And while we seem to be finally acknowledging the reality of PTSD in former military personnel, I wonder if we are prepared to extend that acknowledgement to police officers (and other first responders).
  2. Police need tools to engage victims with a deeper understanding of trauma. This is important, not just for cases of domestic violence and sexual assault (logical places to start—but where there has been VERY little done to date), but for encounters with all victims of crime, and victims of police abuse. By tools, I am talking both about how officers and investigators approach victims—are they merely a means to the end of capturing a perpetrator?—and how they engage them in conversation.  In other words, do police officers know how to interview and treat victims to help them feel safe, protected; offering them options for what they might do now that a crime has been committed against them?  This is an emerging field and one that merits attention.
  3. As a community, we need to view crime itself through the lens of trauma. We are so careful to NOT want to excuse crime and bad behavior. I get that.  But I fear that we lack compassion for perpetrators of crime.  We assume things about them and their motives without a passing thought of the role that trauma might play in their actions.  This is a domain in which restorative justice and processes can help us.  I understand the hesitation of going down a path that would seem to excuse bad behavior in the name of justice, but given what we know, how can we not take the time to seek accountability on the part of those who commit crime, while acknowledging the real-life challenges they often face?
  4. As a community, we need to view police behavior itself through the lens of trauma. We are so careful to NOT want to excuse the abuse of power by the police. I get that.  But I fear that we lack compassion for police officers, perhaps BECAUSE they have so much power. This is a domain in which restorative justice and processes can really help us.  I understand the hesitation of going down a path that would seem to excuse the bad behavior of police officers, but given what we know, how can we not take the time to seek accountability on the part of those who abuse their positions, while acknowledging the real-life challenges they often face?

Perhaps what I am suggesting, and I have not fully played this out in my mind, is that trauma-informed law enforcement must go hand in hand with trauma-informed police oversight.  The question must always be: “what will lead to just outcomes and healing in our communities?”

I invite feedback on these issues.

*  Definition of trauma from the American Psychological Association: Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.

References:

James Johnson, August 11, 2016 Washington Post “There’s trauma on both sides of the police-community relationship.”

www.acestoohigh.com – good resources on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

Donna Kelly and Julie Valentine The Science of Neurobiology of Sexual Assault Trauma and the Utah Legal System (discusses trauma informed interview techniques to be used by police officers and investigators)



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39 thoughts on “Our Police, Ourselves”

  1. John Hobbs

    “Victims, by definition, have experienced a traumatizing event. Even small crimes against people or property can leave people feeling vulnerable and wondering if it will happen again.”

    The first thing is that cops don’t respond to most property crimes.

    “At times, trauma might be caused by the encounter with a police officer itself.”

    Especially if the officer is rude and dismissive when you ask why he doesn’t think you are worthy of his/her time.

    “Officers too experience trauma.  They experience it in the often-horrific stories they hear time and time again from victims, from threatening experiences, from viewing dead or severely injured human bodies, and from pulling up on a call with uncertainty born out of vague descriptions of what they are about to encounter (man in possession of multiple weapons, shooting victim with unknown injuries, etc.).”

    True, but hyperbolic. most cops will not experience these extremes. Stop reading the cop blog narratives, they are horse manure. The clerk at the 24 hour convenience store is at least 8 times more likely to be shot on the job.

    Compassion for a police officer is one thing. Compassion (and the attendant indulgence) for the profession is another entirely.

     

  2. Anya McCann

    Thanks Robb. Having physically stood between them, it is scary when the traumatized meet the traumatized in a heated situation. Thanks for the food for thought. I think it would be useful to have more face to face discussions engineered by the PD or City to humanize both sides and enable better community policing (as well as hiring police that live and participate in their private lives inside our community) which balances out old-school training notions in police academies and helps counter the impacts of trauma. Consider that perhaps those are the kinds of events that can be held with officers leaving their uniform and arms at the office…people meeting people. A badge and name tag suffices.

    I’ve really been impressed with the conversations I’ve had with people who serve on the neighborhood courts about their views and processes. For those interested in learning more about restorative justice, there is an event tonight to demystify it run by Yolo Conflict Resolution Center (at Woodland Community & Senior Center, 2001 East Street Meeting Rooms 3 and 4, Woodland). Event details are on their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/YoloCRC/

  3. Jim Hoch

    People I talk to are of the belief that Robb is aligned with the Cop Haters faction. I am not saying this is true or it is not true, however it is certainly a widely held belief in at least some circles. It may be challenging for him to present himself as an “honest broker”.

      1. Jim Hoch

        I suppose that would be a function of whether you believe the conference he just went to and this article are related. I tend to take my advice from Uguay in Kung Fu Panda, there are no coincidences.

        1. David Greenwald

          The conference he went to informed this article.  Are you suggesting that police oversight is the purview of cop haters?

          In my experiences over the last few months in Davis, there are some people who legitimately hate police, but not very many and many of the people who do hate the police have been rather critical of Robb Davis as well.

          To me this  article has a lot of food for thought and it would be most unfortunate if the fruit from this article was a debate over cop hating.  But then again, that might be par for the course.

        2. Jim Hoch

          “But then again, that might be par for the course.”

          That is they way people roll on this issue. Most people are grateful to cops. Do you want to go into apartments and find a bunch of dead kids? Not my idea of a good job.

          1. David Greenwald

            Jim: “That is they way people roll on this issue. Most people are grateful to cops.”

            I think you mean most white people are:

        3. Keith O

          I’m grateful for cops, but then again I’m told I don’t know what I’m talking about because I have white privilege.  Talk about “par for the course”.

          1. David Greenwald

            “I’m grateful for cops, but then again I’m told I don’t know what I’m talking about because I have white privilege. ”

            At least you acknowledge it.

        4. David Greenwald

          More from Gallup: “An analysis of an aggregate of three years of data — collected in December of 2013, 2014 and 2015 — shows that 60% of whites rate the honesty of police officers as very high or high, compared with 28% of blacks.”

        5. Alan Miller

          At least you acknowledge it.

          Acknowledging that one is being told, is not the same as acknowledging “it”.

          I don’t think anyone is so cavalier as to believe that white people, as a whole, don’t have socio-economic advantages over “people of color”, as a whole; I don’t believe that is BP’s issue here (he says, speaking for BP, which BP is welcome to strike me down with a lightning bolt for).

          The issue is how “white privileged”, as a term, is used to invalidate anything that a white person says that the person making the claim, whether white or “of color”, doesn’t like.  It’s a smarmy rhetorical trick that makes actual dialogue impossible.  And it’s rampant.

        6. Howard P

          Alan… suggest your point would be spot on, if you pointed out the difference between individuals vs. ‘classifications’.  The major problem I see in the general discourse, is not differentiating between the two…

    1. Howard P

      Obviously, Jim, you haven’t talked to me… Robb is no ‘cop-hater’, but does have concerns about specific behaviors by specific police folk… some, if they hear any challenge to their behaviors, take the view that those challenging are ‘haters’.   Whatever…

      1. Jim Hoch

        I did not say he was a “cop-hater” and specifically wrote ” I am not saying this is true or it is not true,” I am saying people I talk to do believe it and that can leave him in a compromised position. 

        Besides, maybe I have spoke to you and don;t know it.

        1. Howard P

          No Jim, what you said was,

          People I talk to are of the belief that Robb is aligned with the Cop Haters faction. I am not saying this is true or it is not true, however it is certainly a widely held belief in at least some circles.

          So, you did some dissembling/back-pedalling, in between (and the intriguing use of “however”)… you are correct that you said,

          I am not saying this is true or it is not true

          Would be interesting to know who “the people I talk to” are, or the nature of “some circles”, but you have no more obligation to “out” your ‘sources’ as David is.  But it would be interesting… to be sure…

          As it stands, my statements stand.

        2. Howard P

          Yeah, John… and I don’t even like waffles that much… only choose them when my spouse serves them, and slip portions to the dog, so spouse doesn’t feel bad when I don’t ‘clean my plate’… dog is still healthy and skinny, tho’… she is very active chasing squirrels from the back yard, and loves to play frisbee and ball…

          Think “Barbie”… huge chest, tiny waist… strong thighs/legs…

        3. Howard P

          Meant as comic relief… apparently, failed… my bad… I apologize, and moderator should feel free to ‘strike’

          She was out chasing squirrels and barking when I wrote… again, ignore or strike…

      2. Howard P

        Well David, the key is in the article (plus past conversations with Robb on many topics):

        I participated in a fascinating forum about “trauma-informed law enforcement” and before it began I wondered whose trauma we would be discussing: victims of crime, police, or other community members?  It turns out the conversation was about all three, and I left wondering if trauma-based analysis might, perhaps, point to a way out of the mutual fear, and the attendant hostility that seems to be a growing feature of our police/community encounters.

        Robb tends to be ‘holistic’ (meant in the very best sense of the word… maybe a better term would be “whole-istically”)… he looks for, and often finds, common truths/common ground.  Most importantly, he listens, and thinks.  Then acts on his informed judgement.

        Have disagreed with Robb on several issues, but have always had respect for him, as he has consistently shown to others, including myself.

        I feel a sense of loss that Robb has listened to “the environment”, and thought thru things to the point that is best for himself and his family, to exit, stage center, from service as a Council member.  I fervently hope another, so inclined to listen, think, and serve, will come to the plate.  At this point, I see none on the horizon…

        More is the pity… but I honor his decision… I had to make a similar one awhile back…

    2. Robb Davis

      Jim – I am happy to talk to you or the “people you talk to” who believe I am a cop hater.  I am not.  I am happy to explain my views on police oversight to anyone who wishes to engage the subject.  It is because I desire strongly to build police legitimacy through transparency and accountability that I went to the NACOLE conference.

      Anyone who reads this article and believes I hate police would have to believe that I care not at all about the trauma they face.  I desire to support them as they face the challenges of their work.  The fact that I want to build accountability does not reduce that desire.

      Please, have the people you talk to contact me at rdavis@cityofdavis.org.

      I am happy to meet with you, or them, at a time that is convenient to both of us to lay out my views.

  4. Jim Hoch

    OK, free reading comprehension lesson.

    “People I talk to are of the belief that Robb is aligned with the Cop Haters faction. I am not saying this is true or it is not true, however it is certainly a widely held belief in at least some circles. It may be challenging for him to present himself as an “honest broker”.”

    I did not say that Robb hated cops. I did not say that Robb may hate cops. What I did say was he may be perceived as “aligned with the Cop Haters faction”. For example the most concentrated population of cop haters is in a very curious group called Black Lives Matter. Not that everyone who identifies with this group is necessarily a cop hater but if I needed to find a cop hater on short notice that is where I would look. 

    It would not really matter if he did hate cops, however the perception that he is sympathetic to the cop haters faction would make it difficult for him be an “honest broker”. The intention of the advocate is key. For example I do not believe that Jeff Adachi has any concern for the safety of my family or myself. We are not his issue. Therefore anything he proposes gets 10x the scrutiny from me even though I sometimes agree with his goals.

    1. Howard P

      I ‘comprehended fine’… see my 1:38 post; your words.  You said what you said.

      The nuance you seem to be making is, what you also said, but which I inadvertently did not cite,

      It may be challenging for him to present himself as an “honest broker”.

      I disagree… respectfully… you are the only one to raise that ‘challenge’… so far, at least…

      Then, you now say,

      For example the most concentrated population of cop haters is in a very curious group called Black Lives Matter. Not that everyone who identifies with this group is necessarily a cop hater but if I needed to find a cop hater on short notice that is where I would look.

      Very interesting ‘clarification’… I imply nothing other than your clarification is “interesting”… just as you implied nothing in your previous post, as you assert… and you’re right… only got 800 in reading comprehension in the 1971 SATS… such a slacker… mea culpa…
       

      1. David Greenwald

        He wouldn’t meet with Michelle Flowers either after advocating for closing King High.  I wouldn’t take him that seriously, seems like he just likes to stir things up on the internet.

        1. David Greenwald

          If you’re referring to me, I meet with a lot of people and do my best to get all sides of the story.  It’s not always possible, but I’ve never turned down a meeting request.

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