Law Enforcement

Law Enforcement officers respond to violent crimes and accidents, witnessing first-hand extreme physical and emotional pain. They frequently have to support family members who are grieving and distraught. Witnessing such events puts officers and first responders at risk of developing secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma.

Law Enforcement may be the most stressful job there is.

According to statistics, one out of every 15 police officers will experience depression at some point. The risk of suicide is 54 percent greater than US workers in general. And PTSD is five times more prevalent than in the general population.

In addition, studies have shown that those in the justice system have very high rates of childhood trauma, or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). There’s a common adage that “hurt people hurt people.” Our detention facilities and probation rolls are packed with highly traumatized individuals in need of trauma-informed care and supports.

A trauma-informed approach to law enforcement benefits all sides.

Trauma-informed practices enhance officers’ understanding of trauma and its effects. This understanding can facilitate criminal investigations, reduce the potential recurrence of criminal behavior, and connect traumatized individuals to appropriate services and supports. These practices have shown to get more cooperation, less escalation, improved community relations and a safe de-escalation of the incident.

Presume everyone has a trauma history

... and treat the situation as if that’s the case.

  • Look for symptoms such as nausea, flashbacks, trembling, memory gaps, fear and anger. These same symptoms can trigger behaviors that may be misinterpreted as lack of cooperation, appearing adversarial, or behaving aggressively.
  • Acting in a hypervigilant state or a constant state of arousal is a sign of trauma. These individuals may appear hostile, particularly if they feel threatened.
  • Traumatized individuals may feel numb and show no outward signs of distress, which can be misinterpreted. Don’t assume there is no trauma because the person is not acting out.
  • Trauma in teens can affect brain development by interrupting the creation of coping strategies to deal with difficult situations and can impede any effort to relate to them or gain their trust.

Being trauma-informed is key to avoiding escalation.

  1. When encountering someone who appears to be experiencing symptoms of trauma, first ensure his or her physical concerns are acknowledged and addressed, so they know their safety and security are important.
  2. Next allow the person to vent about his or her feelings, and validate those feelings. Listening attentively with a nonjudgmental demeanor goes a long way.
  3. Ask “What happened to you?” instead of “What is wrong with you?”
  4. Help provide a sense of control and safety for the victim by explaining what happens next in the processing of the case, and his or her role in that process. Identifying information about the criminal justice system can help victims heal and prepare for the future.
  5. Finally, pay attention to your own mental and emotional health. Practice self-care. Spend time with family and friends. Don’t neglect hobbies, physical activities and faith communities. And ask for help when you need it.

Rebuilding Police and Community Trust


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