How Early Intervention Can Help Police Officers Struggling With Trauma

In addition to detecting and deterring misconduct, early intervention systems (EIS) offer agencies a way to support officers who may be struggling with work-inflicted trauma.

Because trauma affects the human brain in so many negative ways and traumatic incident triggers can be so insidious, even those suffering them may not know they’ve been affected until far later.

Tools like early intervention represent the dual responsibility law enforcement agencies must shoulder:

  • To the public: A better trained and emotionally adjusted corps of officers, resulting in fewer use-of-force incidents such as unjustified shootings or police brutality.
  • To personnel: A system designed to mitigate—as much as it can—the unique stressors of the law enforcement workplace, thus reducing the psychological burdens the industry must place on ground-level employees.

A Brief Look at the Effects of Workplace Trauma

Workplace trauma is an unfortunately common aspect of the first responder lifestyle.

Daily stress, violent situations, and even internal pressures can take a toll on the women and men keeping us safe, with effects we’re all aware of and deeply concerned about: suicide, spousal abuse, addiction, poor health, and more.

Moreover, law enforcement work often comes with a unique blend of stressors:

  • Acute trauma is loosely defined as a specific traumatic incident (or series) with a specific cause and effect. An officer’s involvement in a call that resulted in a fatality would be one example of acute trauma.
  • Chronic trauma is a sometimes “less intense” form of trauma that persists over a longer period. For instance, officers may be subjected to chronic trauma through the ongoing worry of being killed by a distracted driver while pulling people over on a busy roadway day after day. Particularly relevant now, political stress may also be considered a form of chronic trauma.

When it comes to trauma, an EIS will focus mainly on the accumulation of acute traumas, but this is up to the organization and the tracking tools they use.

Tips for Tracking Trauma with an EIS

While every early intervention system will depend on an individual agency’s needs and wants, most organizations can benefit from the following tips.

Look for traumatic incidents.

It seems like obvious advice in an article focused on trauma, but a system that offers no place for noting traumatic incidents fails to help officers from the start. Your system should provide a transparent, concise platform for recording incidents and looking for patterns.

Offer follow-up services.

In some situations, it is apparent that a specific trauma should be added to an officer’s file. In others, more subtle traumas or their effects may accumulate.

In either instance, a system flagging trauma should mean something—in other words, what does your organization do for officers once the recommendation has been made?

Tips from the NPF and other sources include:

Know the results AND the outcomes.

In some instances, noting an officer has hit “thresholds” of trauma can head off misconduct.

The reverse can also be true. Certain types of misbehavior can indicate that an officer has experienced an influx of workplace trauma.

Systems should be configured to look for both, with high-level categories that might include:

  • Force incidents in a given time frame
  • Public complaints
  • Internal conduct complaints

Embrace peer support.

Nobody understands cops better than other cops.

Agencies can use this sense of fraternity to push programs that allow traumatized officers and others with direct experience to talk about their problems, which is one of the best ways to work through traumatic incidents.

Take it seriously as part of your organizational culture.

Adding early trauma flagging in your EIS is a good start, but how do you continue from there? If your organization doesn’t approach traumatic incidents with due respect from the top, it’s illogical to expect those in the rank and file to do the same.

Let your people know trauma is something you are committed to helping them with, and offer multiple ways to raise issues as they arise. Addressing mental health is crucial to your officers’ long-term health and their ability to serve the community.

Posted on Jun 15, 2021