For every six months that a police officer serves in the line of duty, he or she is likely to experience an average of three traumatic events. Such events may include fatal accidents, murders, suicides, and active threats to the life of the officer or someone else. Given the wealth of available data on how trauma reorganizes the nervous system to respond to everyday stimuli as threatening, this is an area that cries for critical exploration, especially in light of the frequency with which unarmed Black civilians are killed at the hands of officers who often make split-second decisions to respond to situations they perceive as dangerous with deadly force.
For police officers of color, on-the-job trauma is often compounded by the lived experience of being a Black or brown person in America. Our previous research has delved into the traumatic fallout of the over-policing of Black youth and its long-term negative health impacts on Black people at a population level. As adults, officers of color then face both the persistent stress of living in a society that treats Black lives as disposable and the forceful, public rebukes of abusive police practices that target the very people who look like them. Such critiques, police officers report, add to the stress of an already demanding, hazard-filled profession.
When the undeniable racial dimensions of aggressive policing of communities of color are publicly discussed in the wake of the murder of yet another unarmed Black mother, father, or child, commenters point to the red herring that racism in policing must not exist when such an incident involves a Black police officer who pulls the trigger. Itis our assertion that this is not the case. All police officers are subject to implicit racial bias as products of a culture where white supremacy is alive and well, and this is known and documented.
What is not documented is our argument that the trauma that all police officers experience in the line of duty, as well as any preexisting childhood trauma that they bring with them, predisposes them at a biological level to overreact to perceived threats in ways that create increased risk for the unnecessary use of deadly force. Black police officers in particular are susceptible given the duality of their roles, although little is known about how this plays out in the context of threatening encounters.
This Article seeks to explore that duality and lay a groundwork for development of further research. We hope to accomplish this, first, by discussing the science of trauma; second, by providing an overview of the history and evolution of policing, including recent innovations (for example, body cameras, community policing, and implicit bias training)intended to reduce the use of force and improve police-community relationships; third, by examining gaps in data and research that could assist in formulating evidence-based approaches for reducing the potential for violent encounters; and finally, by sharing narrative accounts of how traumatic experiences have shaped police officers in their interactions with individuals and communities of color.
Todd J. Clark, Caleb Gregory Conrad, andré douglas pond cummings & Honorable Amy Dunn Johnson, Trauma-Informed Policing: The Impact of Adult and Childhood Trauma on Law Enforcement Officers, 73 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 293 (2023).