Excerpted From: Todd J. Clark, Caleb Gregory Conrad, André Douglas Pond Cummings, and Amy Dunn Johnson, Trauma-informed Policing: The Impact of Adult and Childhood Trauma on Law Enforcement Officers, 73 Case Western Reserve Law Review 843 (Spring, 2023) (247 Footnotes) (Full Document)

ClarkConraadcummingJohnson.jpegFor 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. 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. 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. It is 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.’

[. . .]

What we present here is just the beginning of the national and longitudinal study that we will undertake to truly assess a sample of thousands of police officers across the country. What the interview subjects in this study have shown is that police officers of color, particularly Black American police officers, have in fact suffered traumatizing ACEs as children at the hands of law enforcement officials in alarming numbers. Indeed, of the officers that report abuse at the hands of law enforcement as children, to a person they detailed that this abuse motivated them to try to ensure that no person under their care or authority would ever be treated in the same inhumane manner that they themselves were.

We anticipate that as we engage in a national, longitudinal study on police trauma suffered by law enforcement officers as children and then later as adults, particularly at the hands of police officers, we will uncover a story of deeply held traumas that impact law enforcement officers in real and difficult ways as adults. Gathering data of this kind, as detailed above, has been extremely difficult as law enforcement officers are notoriously closed, cautious, and unwilling to share any perceived “weakness” that could harm their reputations or their jobs. We stand ready to develop the survey instrument and interview questions that will break into this crucial area of research, as this Article demonstrates that there are indeed law enforcement officers willing to discuss and describe the kind of outcomes that childhood and adult traumas have on their lives as police.


IRB-Approved Research Questions

1. What position or positions did you serve in/are you serving in as a law enforcement officer?

2. How long did you serve/have you served in your/each position?

3. Before the age of 18, did you have any encounters with the police where the officer used force of any kind against you?

a. If so, is this something that has influenced you in any way as a police officer? How?

4. Before the age of 18, did you interface with the criminal legal system (i.e., appeared before a judge; arrested/booked/jailed; etc.)?

a. If so, is this something that has influenced you in any way as a police officer? How?

5. Trauma is defined as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one or more of the following ways: (1) directly experiencing the traumatic event(s); (2) witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others; (3) learning that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or friend (in cases of actual or threatened death, the event(s) must have been violent or accidental); (4) experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of traumatic events (e.g., first responders collecting human remains; police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse)

a. Before the age of 18, did you experience any trauma (as defined above)?

b. As an adult, age 18 and older, have you experienced any trauma (as defined above)?

c. Of the traumatic events that have happened to you as an adult, how many have happened in connection with your work as a police officer?

6. [If a or b are Yes] Do you feel that your traumatic experience(s) have influenced you in any way as a police officer? How?

7. Are you of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?

8. What is your race? ((1) White, (2) Black or African American, (3) Asian, (4) American Indian or Alaska Native, or (5) Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander).

Dean, Widener University Delaware Law School, University of Pittsburgh School of Law J.D.