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.

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