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.

Evidence-Based Policing is a Movement

By Meme Styles

Left to Right: Paulette Blanc, Chris Vallejo, Meme Styles

A Different Kind of Movement

A person’s most admirable ability is their capacity to drive social change. Throughout history, world-wide movements that promote good and awareness have been driven by passionate leaders and fed-up loyalists to the cause. Whether it was Women’s Suffrage, The Civil Rights Movement, The Gay Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, Resistance against Apartheid, or The Movement for Indigenous Rights, humanities unwillingness to accept the status quo and commitment to realizing a new-normal marked these efforts of advancement and positive reform.

As we acknowledge the results these world-changing social movements produced, I’d like to suggest that Evidence-Based (EB) Policing is also a movement.

The Evidence-Based Policing Movement, while not dripping in passion or heart-wrenching realities of mistreatment, systemic racism, or oppression, has taken on a life, philosophy and is quickly becoming a thing as it moves outside the ranks of the police department and into the minds and practice of community members, researchers, open databases, and activists. The EB Policing Movement is multifaceted, embracing a diverse culture of leadership to include Dr.

Renee Mitchell, Chief Jim Bueermann (ret), Lt. Chris Vallejo, Paulette Blanc (Measure), Eric Byrd (Measure), or Dr. Obed Magny.

What is Evidence-Based Policing and why is it important?

The College Of Policing says, “In an evidence-based policing approach, police officers and staff create, review and use the best available evidence to inform and challenge policies, practices and decisions.”[

A policing methodology controlled by proven testing is where we EB Activists want the system to go. Would you ever undergo a surgery that has never been proven to work, or allow a Doctor to do a procedure that has had no results of fixing a problem? Probably not. In this same way, a Law Enforcement Officer has the ability to take or preserve life in the matter of moments.

Testing and proving their actions and responses to people is the best way of ensuring professionalism in the practice of policing.

Rigorous testing and analysis may help officers too. We constantly hear reports of the mental toll that policing takes on those who choose the job, but what local evidence do we have that says this is true? Many believe that working long hours causes unnecessary pressure on police, but where is the data on this “fact?” Many agree that post-traumatic stress may set an officer on a lonely journey after responding from one traumatic event to another. What are police departments doing to address this, (and perhaps more importantly) and is it evidence-based?

For many agencies, officers are spending countless hours using Records Management Systems (RMS) that are archaic. Because of these old systems, officers have less time to be proactive in their daily shifts due to time and energy wasted in filtering through messy records. If there are software systems known to make police officers’ jobs easier (such as time saved writing reports), why wouldn’t most agencies take advantage of that? Through Evidence-Based Policing research, we are able to answer these questions and identify the most effective way to better serve all of the stakeholders.

Big Data & Community Policing.

Through the power of big data analysis, randomized control testing in the field, an increasingly robust body of experimentation, and our willingness to embrace it – the EB movement is quickly becoming a go-to solution for assessing best practices in policing.

My organization, MEASURE – A data-driven, public education nonprofit in Austin, Texas noticed a communication & networking gap between social justice advocates, local research institutions, law enforcement practitioners, technology experts, and the application of EB Policing. For better understanding as to how EB Policing can help them speak a common language and possibly spark innovative research design, we hold an annual conference and several workshops to bring all parties these together. So far we’ve held conferences and workshops in both Austin and Dallas, Texas with hopes of branching out to other cities in 2020.

The results of the Big Data & Community Policing conferences and workshops include:

  • A newly formed Evidence-Based Policing think-tank at the Austin Police Department.
  • Free training on mindfulness & de-escalation, performance measure development, EB Policing 101, Compstat360, records management and Community Policing for all participants.
  • The application of design-thinking to address community policing.
  • Relationship building between traditionally siloed groups.
  • Organizational connections for increased EB Policing studies.
  • The City of Austin’s mandate to create Evidence-Based Metrics to assess the local police department’s performance.

It’s Global.

 Australia & New Zealand:

Evidence-Based Policing unit trial may reduce the amount of prison time committed by a first-time offender by 62% over a year. Picture: Lincoln


 The UK:

The College of Policing funds a study to look to test “mindfulness” as a way to combat high stress and record numbers of sick days.

Making It Meaningful To Your Community.

Far too often biased data feeds the narrative about communities who are most impacted by potentially harmful and un-evaluated policies and procedures. MEASURE seeks to empower people impacted by substandard data and the related narrative by allowing the people to own the information gathered about them, and to tell their own story unabridged.

Evidence-Based Policing allows a unique space for community members to become an active partner in the process of community policing and science. By collecting data, applying research and rethinking old ways of doing things with your community, newly created insights may help rewrite the narrative.

Share Data

The collection and analysis of police data for social good has taken off in recent years. Organizations such as Data.World and the Texas Justice Initiative are demonstrating how open data can make a difference.

In 2016 President Obama launched the Police Data Initiative which urged department Chiefs across America to volunteer their data to an open portal. Several cities signed on allowing for data-driven community engagement.

Sharing data with your community is a best-practice as it relates to transparency and making information available to a broader audience. Be sure to show community members where the data is stored online, how to download it and allow opportunity for feedback about the collected and shared data points. Community members may suggest very useful data elements in which the department may have never thought of.

Partner With Non-Traditional Research Partners

Think outside the box when completing a grant for community policing. Instead of partnering with the local go-to researcher, choose to work alongside grassroots organizations, activists-led nonprofits, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s).

Data has a way of helping both police and community groups speak a common language. By reaching out to non-traditional research partners such as these, you have the opportunity to help provide financial resources to local under-resourced organizations and grow a pipeline of Black and Brown data collectors, interpreters, and community policing experts.

Connect with MEASURE.

MEASURE’s mission is to bridge divisions through data and public education in active partnership with local communities to address complex social problems.

MEASURE’s objective is to leverage quantitative and qualitative information, in the form of research and education, as a tool to bridge divisions and empower communities to address complex social problems. We ask impacted communities to become active participants in the process of changing the statistics.

MEASURE is available for research & public education partnerships, community surveys, facilitation, and consultation.

Contact us at:

About Me

Jameila “Meme” Styles is the founder and visionary behind MEASURE. As “chief volunteer,” Meme works with the board, leadership team, and community to further the MEASURE mission worldwide.

Ms. Styles holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Communications, completing a Masters of Public Administration at American Military University and is certified in Performance Measurement through George Washington University College of Professional Studies.

Follow MEASURE on Twitter: @MeasureAustin

Follow Meme on Twitter: @memeofaustin