The Police Are Traumatized

I support police, but not in the same way many people do.

You’ve seen this woman before. With each involuntary convulsion, her bare skin tears against a shifting constellation of broken glass, her thrashing limbs tracing bloody arcs across a stained carpet. You call to her, but she only howls. After a while, she summons the strength to force out a few words: “Help me. Ican’t stop.”

Cristin Sauter is telling me about the trauma of police work. The scene I describe occurred during a call she answered during one of her weekly, eight-hour shifts with the City of Newburgh Police Department, where she served as an adjunct social worker on temporary loan from Adelphi University while finishing her Master’s degree over the past year.

“I was speechless,” recalled Cristin, who will pursue a Ph.D. in Social Work this fall. “That was my first experience with someone overdosing on drugs and really hurting themselves. She was rolling around on the floor, trying to crawl out of her skin. She physically couldn’t stop moving. She wanted to, but she couldn’t. She was screaming for help.”

Unlike Cristin, the half-dozen police officers and paramedics who responded to the call seemed unfazed. “When we got back to the car, the officer was like, ‘Yeah, we know her. She is a repeat overdoser. We encounter this often.’ It was like he was desensitized.”

Social workers are rare sights in police departments. Cristin, her department supervisors and the officers who benefit from her contributions to their work want to change that, and they are lobbying the City of Newburgh to make room in its budget for one or more social workers within the department. The goal is to reduce the hazards of policing both for the public and police officers by training street-level cops to more peacefully de-escalate tense interactions with the people they are tasked to serve, and to more healthily manage the stress of their job.

Cristin’s stories remind me that police work is inherently traumatizing. Whether they ever have cause to reach for their guns or not, police officers are constantly subject to threats of violence. It is part of the water in which they swim. Left untreated, the consequences of trauma can be disastrous. Lengthy exposure disrupts normal brain functioning. It undermines our ability to think clearly and carefully and regulate our emotions. And it makes us more suspicious, less trusting and even paranoid. It increases the likelihood that we will respond to stressful experiences aggressively.

“Fight or flight,” I say. “Or freeze,” Cristin adds. “An officer with untreated trauma experiences a lack of ability to think deeply and comprehensively before they take action.”

Fortunately, the effects can be treated, even reversed. But it appears that few officers seek the therapy that the state makes available to them. Cristin worked with roughly half of the members of the City of Newburgh’s police force, and in long conversations with each of them, none of them said they have taken advantage of the therapy that is offered.

Why not? “My sense is that there is a little bit of shame around that,” Cristin says. Officers are not required to be treated for trauma. Instead, they are left to work things out with each other over beer. “There is a lot of socializing within the department over substances that relax the mind,” Cristin said.

Alcohol is no substitute for medical treatment. But it appears that a thin, liquory line is sometimes all that stands between the public and a class of people who are armed, authorized to use force, and suffering the debilitating consequences of structural, untreated trauma. Like other people, police can lose consciousness of how their behavior affects others, and they should be trained to be very knowledgeable of just that, because both community safety and the psychological and physical well being of officers depend on it.

This piece first appeared at The Hudson Valley News