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Navigating Law Enforcement Culture in the Shadow of Vicarious Trauma

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tanya Settles
January 19, 202

I always like the start of a new year. The optimist in me says the start of a new year is a time to reflect, acknowledge the lessons learned from the past year and adjust to a new year with new possibilities. For public safety agencies across the nation, 2023 had its challenges. Agencies faced leadership turnover, operational shortages, difficult rhetoric and deep criticism from the communities they serve. Law enforcement agencies also renewed their commitment to communities, critically examined the fundamental purpose of policing and built policies that promote safety and wellbeing. An important step in this transformation involves caring for the people who serve as much as the community that is served.

Law enforcement as a profession has been historically remiss in creating and sustaining an organizational culture that is psychologically safe and nurtures an ethos of duty to care. As a result, many law enforcement personnel don’t work in an agency that values harm reduction and empathy in practice. The unfortunate consequence is that personnel still operate in agencies that value stoicism over empathy, crime fighting over duty to care and warrior-like thinking over mental wellbeing.  Unfortunately, these factors contribute to an organizational culture that bears the underbelly of suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress, compassion fatigue and other factors that cause harm to personnel.  There’s little incentive to engage with the community with a focus on harm reduction and peacemaking when officers don’t find the same within their own organizational culture.

Law enforcement is a complex job. Public safety departments are a lot like the Ghostbusters of modern communities. When people experience conflict that is beyond their immediate ability to resolve, “who ya gonna call?” That call is often answered by law enforcement, even when most of time, there’s no crime.  And in making this call, communities ask a lot of the people who accept the charge to take on the problems of others when community members don’t have the capacity to resolve their own conflict. For generations, the expectation was that law enforcement would manage this burden by being stoic, avoiding confrontation with the demons that occupy the darkest places in their minds and assuming the role of warrior with no acknowledgement of how trauma impacts individuals and organizations. Vicarious trauma has always happened. We just didn’t talk about it. And because we didn’t talk about it, we didn’t do anything about it, either.

Why This Matters for Organizational Culture

In addition to exploring technology, better use of research and different staffing structures such as co-responder models, we also must rethink the impact of vicarious and secondary trauma on personnel. It is imperative that law enforcement agencies embrace a different culture of policing that focuses on peacemaking and taking care of the people who by the nature of their jobs are impacted by direct and vicarious trauma. This doesn’t mean stepping away from the primary objective of dealing with crime and disorder. It means thinking about it differently. There are some steps agencies can take:

  1. Organizationally focus on peace-building and harm reduction. Start by transitioning from “police officers” to “peace officers”. Most states already use the term “peace officer” in law and certification (for example, Peace Officer Standards and Training), but when officers are on the job, they shift to “police officer”. As Lisa Broderick has noted, “peace officer is the one unifying notion that ties all cops together”. 
  2. Recognize the impact of vicarious traumaLaw enforcement is stressful, even when officers are responding to calls for service that does not include critical incidents or violent crime. Secondary and vicarious trauma is real. It needs to be acknowledged as a part of police culture so law enforcement professionals can access help when they need it without fear of stigma
  3. Immediately offer resources to deal with primary trauma when it happens. Law enforcement is dangerous work, and while the dubious distinction of most dangerous job goes to logging workers, law enforcement makes the top 25. What makes law enforcement different is that when trauma occurs it is often at the hands of another human. Someone intentionally meant to cause harm, and this increases risk of the effects of primary trauma exposure. 
  4. Normalize mental wellbeing. Taking care of mental health moves far beyond addressing primary and secondary trauma. It means creating a psychologically safe organizational culture where all personnel are valued and can identify problems, solutions and innovative approaches without fear of retaliation. This includes addressing mental wellbeing and health. 
  5. Rethink organizational structure. As John Violanti noted over 20 years ago, modeling law enforcement departments after authoritarian military leadership may create barriers to interpersonal communication and collaboration. Agencies should work to reduce the formal power differential between leaders and those within the ranks to improve job satisfaction, reduce organizational stress, yet still meet organizational goals.  

There is no single solution to managing vicarious trauma. Taking the steps to acknowledge, normalize and adjust culture around taking care of the people who make peace are important steps for the future of law enforcement.

Author: Tanya Settles is the CEO of Paradigm Public Affairs, LLC. Tanya’s areas of work include relationship building between local governments and communities, restorative justice, and the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters on at-risk populations. Tanya can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions in this column and any mistakes are hers alone.

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