Trauma to Trust

Equal Justice USA's Trauma to Trust seeks to reduce violence by building empathy and trust between community members and law enforcement. (Photo: Equal Justice USA)

Trauma to Trust--Healing Communities Beset by Violence

"This kind of understanding—of the trauma that policing can inflict on Black and Brown communities, of the trauma that police officers experience doing their jobs—is crucial if we're going to reduce violence committed by people on both sides of a badge."

As a Black man who had a family member killed by police, I would never have imagined working with law enforcement. But as a psychotherapist dealing with my own symptoms of trauma because of that loss, I knew I needed help. So a few months after my cousin was killed I found myself in a room with uniformed officers. They were on duty; their guns were loaded. I thought, "Oh boy, this is not the type of training that I signed up for."

"The challenge is to have a healing response instead of just continuing the failed policies of the past."

I was in what was then a new program launched by Equal Justice USA in Newark, NJ, in which police officers and community members shared their respective trauma with the goal of creating mutual understanding, empathy, and healing.

As the training progressed, I learned about officer-related trauma and saw how officers not only get "institutionalized" as part of law enforcement but also traumatized by the very system they serve. Hearing their stories opened my eyes. I was able to alter my view of police officers, even the views I held about the officer that took my cousin's life. By no means did trauma excuse his hideous actions, but it helped me understand why it may have happened.

The training was also the first time a police officer had ever shown me empathy. An officer reached over and said "I don't know what your cousin did, but I don't need to know. He did not deserve to die and I am so sorry for the loss that you and your family have experienced."

That was the first time any cop had ever said that to me, and it was a transformative moment. I volunteered for the trauma training program, and 18 months later EJUSA hired me. Today, I am the director of what is now called Trauma to Trust.

This program is radical in several ways. To start, it's unusual for practitioners to bring those who've harmed and those who've been harmed together. Yet this is a place where it is done effectively and leads to true healing. The program also breaks down the stereotypes that get in the way of building public safety. Community members come in and see a uniform, a gun, an oppressive system. Police see people who don't respect them and who might contribute to community violence.

When participants leave a session, they have seen past their expectations to see the humanity of people on both sides. Trauma to Trust helps strip away the easy labels of skin color, occupation, and socioeconomic status, so we can see the person as a fellow human being. Instead of officers asking what's wrong with Black and Brown people, they start asking what has happened in their communities that is causing the violence? Community members shift from asking what's wrong with you as a police officer, and they start asking what happened to you as a police officer?

Establishing our shared humanity and shedding the easy labels provides the space to be vulnerable, tell the truth, and navigate conflict in a way that is healthy. For example, during one session a Black female officer and a Black male gang member were talking about what safety means. The officer admitted she not only had to defend herself in the community but also against some people in the predominantly white male police department. "I have to go the extra mile to make sure that I am safe because I want to make it home," she said.

The gang member's perspective was equally revealing. "You have got a gun that can be used legally. Imagine how it makes me feel. This is why we carry," he said. It was a powerful moment. They understood that both sides need to feel safe when they encounter each other but also within the systems that routinely threaten them.

This kind of understanding--of the trauma that policing can inflict on Black and Brown communities, of the trauma that police officers experience doing their jobs--is crucial if we're going to reduce violence committed by people on both sides of a badge. This work is especially important now, as many communities across the nation have seen a surge in homicides coinciding with the Covid pandemic.

This approach is not naive idealism. It works. Public Safety Director Brian O'Hara has been invested in this program since its start. "On an individual level, having talked with many officers, I know that Trauma to Trust is changing the way our officers approach the community and do their job," said O'Hara. "And that impact can be seen in the metrics we track that is real proof of performance."

The timing feels right as we expand Trauma to Trust to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2022, where a legacy of police violence and oppression looms. This program can work--in Baton Rouge, in your community, just as it has worked in our city of Newark. The cities are different, but the challenges are shared--too much violence and not enough earned trust. I would not have believed it just a few years ago, but I have learned, as a survivor of trauma and as a mental health professional, that we can effectively address the impacts of violence. The challenge is to have a healing response instead of just continuing the failed policies of the past."

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