Highlighting the need for trauma-informed policing during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world, and the need to reduce infection by flattening the curve has resulted in orders and new legislation to social distance, stay home, and self-isolate as much as possible. It has also resulted in massive job losses and economic crisis.
With this come multiple stressors that impact families.
There are reports worldwide of increased intimate partner violence and concerns about the safety of children in unsafe homes. What does this mean for Canadian policing, both during and post pandemic? With increased intimate partner violence, child abuse, and unsafe home environments comes trauma to adult victims, offenders, and an increase in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). While not everyone who experiences ACEs ends up in the justice system, many people who are incarcerated do have significant childhood trauma.
The impact of ACEs reaches far beyond the justice system. They are a precursor to a myriad of health problems ranging from addiction to cancer. It has been demonstrated that the level of trauma experienced in the formative years seems to set lives down a course that increases the probability of incarceration, unemployment, poverty, mental health, and addictions, much of this beyond their own control due to the brain injury caused by their respective traumas.
Trauma-informed policing is using a strengths-based approach and understanding the physiological and psychological impacts of trauma from a police operational lens.
Arresting Our Way Out of a Problem
The concept of trauma-informed care is based on three pillars, “Safety, Connections and Managing Impulse Control”. All frontline service providers and all professionals who have contact with individuals who have experienced trauma can play an important role in the healing process .
The police are the entry point into the criminal justice system, and the first two pillars of trauma-informed care, Safety and Connections, are two areas where the police can thrive in being trauma informed. Working with partner agencies in the community and being able to provide alternatives to arrest is an opportunity for police to be crucial in the role of addressing trauma. Alternatives to arrest and connecting people to the proper resources can make for a safer community because it goes to address the root cause of crime rather than just the specific crime itself.
Policing has historically failed to understand the justice client, regardless of whether it is the victim, the offender, or a combination of both. Policing has traditionally conducted law enforcement business in a manner that has failed to understand the trauma that people have experienced either during the incident at hand or throughout their life course. Understanding trauma also leads to understanding vulnerability, and when police are provided with trauma-informed training, they become more confident and better equipped to deal with vulnerable populations.
If police officers are properly trained to understand the impacts of trauma, they will have a greater ability to positively interact with individuals and work to redirect or off-ramp them with alternatives to arrest while reducing crime.
Providing police with the requisite understanding of trauma leads to an increase in compassion on the part of police officers for the people with whom they are interacting, regardless of whether it is an offender or a victim.
In the current world climate, with the necessity of physical distancing and levels of isolation to flatten the curve on the spread of COVID-19, there have been reports of worldwide increases of intimate partner violence.
The evidence on trauma in a post-pandemic society is scarce, due to the rarity of the situation. However, disasters result in spikes in Post Traumatic Stress responses, increased alcohol and drug use, and other mental health crises, regardless of whether they are natural (e.g. hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.) or human-initiated mass traumas (terrorist attacks, mass shootings, etc.).
The need for trauma-informed policing is clear but equally important is a need to
work on changing police culture. Over the past several years, there has arguably been a shift in policing that has made police more militarized and less connected with community.
There is a history of police arresting to solve a problem. However, in the long run, the decision to arrest can create more problems than it solves. These problems range from increased recidivism of the arrested person, to interruption of treatment that is addressing the root cause, to loss of community and familial supports for the arrestee and increased costs to the taxpayer for charges that are often not prosecuted.
Arresting our way out of problems has not solved the continuous increase in crime.
There is a necessity for trauma-informed policing to address social problems. Crime is often a symptom of greater social and individual issues, and trauma-informed practice is a way to address problems at the root cause of criminal behavior. The necessary shift for police is a need to be more strategic on when to arrest and when to work towards an alternative to arrest.
The Future of Policing
The COVID-19 pandemic has a multitude of impacts on policing, from increased powers to enforce public health orders to modelling shift schedules to ensure that there is no interruption of police services to the community in the event of police officers becoming infected. This global issue has highlighted the need for trauma-informed policing practice.
The impacts of trauma from a global pandemic will put a strain on the mental health of many. The police need to be armed not only with lethal and less-than-lethal options on their duty belts, they need to have a clear understanding of who the justice client is.
Experiencing trauma does not make an individual an offender, but many people who are incarcerated have a significant amount of trauma. Having trauma-informed practice woven through the respective police services will result in increased legitimacy, and ensuring that the interventions change as a result of this will reduce crime and make a safer community
The future of policing has a definite need to move away from the arrest-and-detain practice to strategically arresting some and strategically offering alternatives to arrest for others in order to make communities safer.
Daniel J. Jones is a senior leader in a Canadian police service and holds over 20 years of front-line experience working in homicide, hate crimes, specialized investigations, and Indigenous relations.