Investigating Secondary Trauma in police/community relations

By Dr. Obed Magny


If you talk to some members of the law enforcement community, they’ll say today’s climate in policing is causing them to be less proactive in the streets. Factors such as political headwinds have officers questioning whether their agency would support them in a use of force event, even if it appears to be justified and within policy. Another major issue is recruiting and retention. Agencies are struggling with staffing across their organizations leading to officers having to do more work with less resources. In many areas, officers are handling high volumes of calls for service, leaving little to no time for proactive activities. Pension reform, social media, and other causes mentioned earlier are contributing to the profession becoming less appealing. With that being said, what kind of toll is this having on today’s police officer? One thing I know for sure is this trend leads to less communication about crime, and other neighborhood problems. If officers are not engaged with the communities they serve, they’re less likely to know the people living there.

Being a police officer can be the most rewarding job in the world. Making a difference in people’s lives, and effecting positive change is an experience few people get to experience. Being the next hashtag or social media target are some of the reasons behind why some officers feel this way. But in all of this conversation, something else is seldom spoken of, and that is the effect of secondary trauma on the community and the police. Secondary Trauma is defined as the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about or sees the trauma experienced by another. I’m writing this piece to speak of a qualitative approach that can help in the healing process for communities and police altogether.

The qualitative approach that I’m speaking of is phenomenological studies. With phenomenological studies, you get data specific to the phenomenon based on the experience of the individual. This type of study tries to eliminate predetermined suppositions about human experiences, especially when it comes to how people feel and respond to events. This has led some of us to ask the question of, how can we use research to help not just identify secondary trauma, but help in the healing process too? Deputy Chief Tarrick McGuire (Arlington, TX), Deputy Chief Shon Barnes (Salisbury, NC), LaQuesia Love MS, LPC-S (Psychotherapist), and I are currently in the process of focusing on those questions. In order for us to come up with evidence-based solutions to help the police and communities come together, we have to know specifically the degree of trauma they are going through, and what those triggers are. Having a better understanding will aid in creating specific evidence-based policies and procedures everyone can trust.

The purpose of this research is to address our proposition that police officers are also susceptible to secondary trauma due to the weight of responsibility they carry to protect and serve the public. We started this research interviewing police officers (various ranks) from two agencies in the U.S. We also sat down and interviewed civilian personnel, and community members from those same communities. Speaking with civilian and community members, we wanted to compare their experiences with those of the officers. We chose two departments that dealt with a controversial critical incident in their respective jurisdictions. The first goal of this qualitative study was to use a phenomenological methodology to identify and describe the police officers, community members, and other support staff’s perceptions and lived experiences regarding the factors affecting them about the critical incident. Capturing the rich narrative associated with a person’s lived experience, initiating in-depth interviews with the people who directly/indirectly experienced the event was very important to us, and felt this was a great place to start.  We needed those one-on-one interviews to elicit the narratives needed for the first part of this study.

The second part of this study is utilizing a quantitative approach by administering a questionnaire identifying the degree of the stress officers face from the critical incident, and to what degree are they seeking help. An interview questionnaire was drafted containing several questions related to the participants’ backgrounds, and to the research questions to gather more details related to mental health help-seeking behaviors. We wanted to capture data related to secondary trauma after a critical incident from all officers whether they were directly or indirectly involved. The third piece of this comprehensive study is comparing data related to proactive activities before and after the major event in those cities. We wanted to see if there’s a change in the behavior of the police officer in those departments after the critical incident.

It’s well documented that PTSD affects many officers, during and after their careers. Numerous agencies offer some form of EAP (Employee Assistance Program) to help those who seek it. This collaborative effort is part of the groundwork in using research to create a foundation in helping communities heal. More research using phenomenological approaches are needed if we really want to know about the experiences officers and community members are feeling during these times of significant changes in the policing profession. The goal of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing is to put “evidence into the heart of the Criminal Justice System.” This approach is one of the first steps in achieving that goal in solving problems in our communities if we are to bridge the gap of trust.

Is there any evidence concerning the Warrior/Guardian debate in policing?

At some point over the past 10 years, the idea that police officers should see themselves as guardians (i.e., officers valuing working with the public to reduce crime) rather than warriors (i.e., officers seeing themselves as soldiers in a life-or-death battle against crime) became lodged in the debate on police reform. Indeed, the argument found its way into the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and training programs across the country (e.g., the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission; see Kindy, 2015). Academically, scholars began to advocate for the change in a number of outlets (see e.g., Marenin, 2016; Stoughton, 2016a; 2016b; Thibodeau, Crow, & Flusberg, 2016). This debate did not go unnoticed by practitioners who began voicing opinions on the topic within online discussion boards (e.g., Blake, 2016; Brocklin, 2015; Davis, 2015; Smith, 2016) and practitioner-related outlets (e.g., Cullum, 2016; Rahr & Rice, 2015).

The problem – one that the members of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing (ASEBP) are undoubtedly all too familiar with – is that this debate exploded in an environment devoid of empirical research. Despite compelling arguments, no data was presented to suggest that an officer’s approach to policing could be altered or that these two apparently distinct approaches to policing even existed. To address this issue, my colleagues and I constructed a survey measure that was intended to tap into the relevant orientations to policing, administered the instrument to two police departments in the United States, and subjected the data to rigorous analyses to determine if the warrior and guardian mentalities existed and whether there was any merit to the debate. The findings of our study were recently published in Justice Quarterly and are reviewed here.

Generating Evidence

To construct the survey measure, we examined the existing arguments on the issue. Using the literature, we defined the warrior approach as an orientation to police work that “prioritizes crime fighting as a law enforcement officer’s primary mission” (McLean et al., 2019). On the other hand, we defined the guardian approach as an approach to police work that “prioritizes service over crimefighting” (Stoughton, 2016a, p. 231) and “emphasizes building relationships between the police and the community” (McLean et al., 2019). Using these definitions, we constructed nine survey items, three of which were aimed at the warrior mentality (e.g., “My primary responsibility as a police officer is to fight crime.”) and six of which were aimed at the guardian mentality (e.g., “As a police officer, it is important that I have non-enforcement contacts with the public.”).

With the measure constructed, we then needed a way to determine if the measure was related to the concepts it should be related to – an idea referred to as predictive validity. Again, we returned to the literature and determined that:

  1. The guardian approach should lead officers to value communication in an interaction with a citizen (Rahr & Rice, 2015; Stoughton, 2016a).
  2. The warrior approach should lead officers to value physical control in an interaction with a citizen (Rahr & Rice, 2015; Stoughton, 2016a).
  3. The warrior approach will result in officers being more likely to use force inappropriately (Stoughton, 2016b).

With these hypotheses in mind we constructed a hypothetical vignette of a police officer/citizen interaction (the scenario involved an officer responding to a suspicious persons call; see article in Justice Quarterly for full details) and constructed measures of communication priorities (e.g., “How important is establishing rapport with the subject?”) and control priorities (e.g., “How important is making the subject stop walking away?”). Finally, we asked officers for their attitudes regarding force misconduct (e.g., “Verbally disrespectful suspects sometimes deserve physical force.”).

The survey was administered to two police departments in different parts of the United States. Data from one police department was subjected to exploratory factor analysis – a process that makes no assumptions about the structure of the measure but generates a proposed measurement model based on the statistical properties of the data. Next, data from the other police department was subjected to confirmatory factor analysis – a process that takes a proposed measurement model (generated by the first department) and tests whether the model is supported by the new data. Finally, data from both departments was combined and used to test the predictive validity hypotheses reviewed above.

The results from the exploratory factor analysis proposed a model that was consistent with our expectations – the Warrior/Guardian items separated into two factors, one for warrior, one for guardian. However, the warrior and guardian factors were correlated. This suggests that while there are two distinct approaches to policing consistent with the arguments of the Warrior/Guardian model, officers were able to adopt both mentalities. The results from the confirmatory factor analysis replicated this finding in the second police department.

Finally, the predictive validity tests supported the hypotheses found in the literature. Higher scores on the guardian measure were related to greater prioritization of communication. Higher scores on the warrior measure were related to greater prioritization of physical control and more favorable attitudes towards force misconduct.

Reviewing the Evidence

At this point, given the mission of the ASEBP it is important to review the quality of this evidence. The process used to test the measurement of the Warrior/Guardian mentalities was very rigorous. It is rare in criminology for survey measures to be collected in independent samples with the data from one sample confirming findings generated in another sample, as was done here. Additionally, the exploratory method used to generate a proposed model did not assume that the items would separate into the warrior and guardian measures – in fact, it did not assume that there would even be two measures. In other words, the exploratory method used would have generated a single measure (or factor) if there were not two distinct mentalities. Thus, the evidence that these two mentalities exist and can be assessed in a survey is fairly strong. On the other hand, the predictive validity tests were not rigorous. In conducting these tests we merely provided preliminary support for the idea that an officer’s overall mentality is related to the way they approach individual encounters – there was absolutely no causality established.

Moving Forward

In sum, our project was able to make the first steps towards establishing an evidence-base regarding the Warrior/Guardian debate. Our findings demonstrated, in a rigorous manner, that these mentalities do exist AND are able to be measured in a survey. If this debate is to continue informing policing policies, such as approaches to training new recruits, further research should be done to explore whether and how the mentalities can be trained or socialized, as well as whether the mentalities impact officer behavior on the job.

This post is based on the article “Police Officers as Warriors or Guardians: Empirical Reality or Intriguing Rhetoric?” published in Justice Quarterly.


Blake, D. (2016, July 12). Guardian vs. warrior: The many roles of a police officer. Retrieved from:

Brocklin, V.V. (2015, July 1). Warriors vs. guardians: A seismic shift in policing or just semantics? Retrieved from:

Cullum, J. (2016). When serving meets surviving – Officer mindset matters. Community Policing Dispatch: The e-newsletter of the COPS Office, 9. Retrieved from:

Davis, K. (2015, July 3). Warrior or guardian? Retrieved from:

Kindy, K. (2015, December 10). Creating guardians, calming warriors: A new style of training for police recruits emphasizes techniques to better de-escalate conflict situations. Washington Post. Retrieved from:

Marenin, O. (2016). Cheapening death: Danger, police street culture, and the use of deadly force. Police Quarterly, 19, 461-487.

McLean, K., Wolfe, S.E., Rojek, J., Alpert, G.P., & Smith, M.R. (2019). Police officers as warriors or guardians: Empirical reality or intriguing rhetoric? Justice Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2018.1533031

President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015). Final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Washington DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Rahr, S. & Rice, S.K. (2015). From warriors to guardians: Recommitting American police culture to democratic ideals. New Perspectives in Policing Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

Smith, D. (2016, January 13). Warriors or guardians? Uninformed activists who would change police officers from warrior to guardians should be careful what they wish for. Retrieved from:

Stoughton, S. (2016a). Law enforcement’s warrior problem. Harvard Law Review Forum, 128, 225-234.

Stoughton, S. (2016b). Principled policing: Warrior cops and guardian officers. Wake Forest Law Review, 51, 611-676.

Thibodeau, P.H., Crow, L., & Flusberg, S.J. (2016). The metaphor police: A case study of the role of metaphor in explanation. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, doi: 10.37.58/s13.423-016-1192-5.