Should We Talk About How Trauma Affects Police Behavior?

In the discussion of police brutality, generally speaking, one camp calls for sweeping, radical, even terminal changes to policing in order to end beatings and killings of civilians, while the other camp stresses that police officers have extremely dangerous, high-stress jobs and, while mistakes do occur at times, certain changes will only make things more dangerous for cops and for the public at large. There’s some talking past each other here, but perhaps one of the more significant things that is missed or simply isn’t much discussed is how these ideas are connected: of course people who go through trauma might be more likely to snap and murder someone for no reason at all.

A couple clarifications here. First, many on the Left will have little sympathy for the police no matter how traumatized someone might be by seeing dead bodies, blood and brains splattered about, raped children, and beaten wives, or by being shot at or otherwise attacked. After all, individuals who join police forces do so by choice, participate (whether aware of it or not) in an oppressive system that ensures the constant harassment and mistreatment of people of color, and so on. For some of my comrades, talking about how officer trauma might contribute to police brutality would be a major faux pas, offering excuses or a sympathetic ear to the other side in a rather uncomfortable way. Yet if police trauma does exist, and if it does contribute in some way to police brutality, it makes sense to think about it, discuss it, and figure out what to do about it. Sympathy isn’t required. Second, it should be clarified that acknowledging trauma as a possible cause of police violence doesn’t mean other causes, such as racism, machismo and power, poor training and use of force procedures, age, a dearth of education, complete lack of punishment, and so forth don’t exist and have devastating effects on society. (Another one is the human tendency to mistakenly see things you’re watching for. If you’re speeding and watching for cops, every other car begins to look like a cop. If you’re watching for guns or threatening movements from someone you’ve pulled over…) Finally, a discussion like this one isn’t meant to distract or deflect from the terrible trauma that victims of police violence live with for the rest of their lives. If there is a way we can stop one trauma from leading to another, we should pursue it.

We know officers’ experiences contribute to PTSD and other serious psychological and physiological problems. “Research has indicated that by the time police officers put on their uniform and begin general patrol, their stress-related cardiovascular reactivity is already elevated,” and this is followed by, generally speaking, “at least 900 potentially traumatic incidents over the course of their career.” Some officers will have bigger problems, if they came from the military and were traumatized in the bloodbath of war. Extreme stress and PTSD can lead to aggression and exaggerated startle response and recklessness; in police officers it’s been shown to lead to less control in decision-making “due to heightened arousal to threats, inability to screen out interfering information, or the inability to keep attention.” Academics in The Huffington Post and Psychology Today have connected occupational trauma to brutality, as have former officers on fervent pro-cop sites (for example, could reforms addressing trauma “reduce the number of inappropriate decisions some officers make? If we are concerned about the dysfunctional actions of some cops, is it possible that some of the fault lies with the rest of us who ignore the trauma that officers go through?”). More research would be valuable, but it’s a safe bet police trauma contributes to police brutality. (A connection also exists, by the way, between officer stress and violence against their romantic partners.)

This writer doesn’t have too much more to say on the matter — it simply seems important to connect the two ideas mentioned in the first paragraph, especially for those of us who care about justice and about encouraging others of very different views to care as well. “True, the police have dangerous jobs, but do you see how the extreme stress that most officers experience might make police brutality a serious problem? Perhaps there are other factors, too. Perhaps there are societal changes we can make that would address both officer PTSD or safety and police brutality against ordinary people.” It could be a way to build a bridge or find a sliver of common ground.

How to actually address such trauma will range wildly, of course, from the reactionary, though valid, sentiments from police departments about the need for more mental healthcare to the radical (“Radical simply means grasping things at the root,” Angela Davis) idea that we “Abolish the Police.” After all, no police means no police trauma. And no police brutality. Convincing people that trauma contributes to brutality seems far easier than agreement on how to solve these things.

This is a bit of an aside, but I’m still determining where I personally fall when it comes to what to specifically do about the police. I firmly believe that broad changes are needed concerning: who responds to certain nonviolent calls (it need not be quasi-soldiers, at least not as first responders); the allocation of resources, with reform devoting huge sums into addressing the root causes of crime, namely poverty, instead of into policing and other initiatives that only address the symptoms; the qualifications, education, training, evaluation, use of force procedures, and weaponry of those who respond to violent calls; what an individual can be pulled over or confronted or arrested for, just serious changes to law and policy; who investigates police misconduct (not the departments) and how abusive officers are punished, beginning with termination and blacklisting and ending with prison sentences; and much more. These things, perhaps combined with better mental healthcare and therapy, reduced hours, increased leave, shorter careers, and so forth for those facing traumatic situations, can reduce both the trauma and violence. (Although I don’t recall the specific incident, in the news a few years ago there was a report about how the officer who killed an unarmed black man in the evening had witnessed a murder or suicide that morning; taking him off duty seems like it would have been an obvious thing to do.) But I do suspect that modern societies will always have some traumatic situations and need individuals to enter them, whether it’s the police or something resembling the police. Perhaps more personal study is needed. I recently asked of my acquaintances:

I haven’t studied #PoliceAbolition or #PrisonAbolition theory with any depth. Currently, it seems likely to me that future human societies — more decent ones, with prosperity for all, unarmed response teams, restorative justice, and more — would still require some persons or groups authorized to use force against others in circumstances where de-escalation fails, and require some persons to be separated against their will from the general population, for the sake of its safety, during rehabilitation. These scenarios seem likely to be far rarer when we radically transform social conditions and societal policies, but not disappear completely. Can anyone recommend abolitionist literature that either 1) specifically makes the case that such circumstances would never occur and thus such force requirements are void, or 2) that argues such circumstances would indeed occur but specifically lays out how such requirements could be handled (force could be used) by alternative people or institutions without, over time, devolving back into something close to today’s police and prisons.

My mind may change as I go through some of the recommended readings, but as it stands I wonder if the number of individuals authorized to use force, their trauma, and their brutality can only be greatly reduced, rather than eradicated completely. While a better human society is possible and will be won, a perfect one may be out of reach.