Police, Minority Communities, and Trauma by David Eisenberg, LCSW, Ph.D.

I didn’t plan this, but it ends up that my social work career has had an underlying focus on trauma. My first professional assignment involved studying the traumatic consequences for frail elders when moved involuntarily. Forty years later I am working with suicidal veterans. In between I’ve had a whole host of work experiences that have had me interrupting trauma, addressing the immediate consequences, maybe causing some myself, and then treating trauma-induced psychological injury. What I’d like to do today is address my experience working for social justice in San Diego, but with a focus on policing, the relationship between cops and communities, and the implications for social workers like us.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, I was a rookie Chula Vista police officer working overtime on an achingly beautiful San Diego Sunday morning in May – cool, bright-blue, cloudless sky, smell of flowers everywhere. All was right with my world – piloting my freshly washed police unit south on the 805, the hills of TJ rolling in the distance, handsome in my spiffy blue uniform. Suddenly shattering the quiet was one of my partners calling for cover – drop what you are doing, lights and sirens, I need assistance now. I was really close and headed over to her.

I arrived at a strip mall – and a crowd of super upset and animated people. In the confusion, I’m able to see her wrestling into her vehicle what turns out to be a double homicide suspect, trying alone to get him away from the crowd. I went to help her, but she waved me off to attend to other victims. What victims? We had been called to the scene of a mid-day bar confrontation. Seemingly unprovoked, one patron stabbed another patron, causing his almost immediate death. That victim was lying in the doorway of the bar. Others gave chase, and the suspect turned and stabbed victim 2, causing him to die. I was with him as he died, on the oily concrete. I watched him die, my face inches from his. Victim 3 was lying nearby with a massive femoral artery cut. He had tried to kick the knife out of the suspect’s hand but was wounded seriously for his efforts. Another of my partners was providing compression to the wound, sitting with him in a puddle of his own blood, trying hard to keep him from bleeding out. Because of her efforts, victim 3 survived.

I tried to remember my training [render assistance, mark and protect the crime scene, look for evidence, provide notifications to superiors, take witness statements, write my reports]. Truth be told, for all my high priced education and experience – I was overwhelmed. I wandered at times trying to focus on what I should do next. I had difficulty concentrating. I experienced perceptual distortion [action around me slowed, my hearing shut down, I lost peripheral vision]. I kind of numbed out. At the PD our 2 police psychologist interviewed me. He suggested I was probably experiencing Acute Stress Reaction. It came as a surprise. At least for that day I lost my ability to process what was happening to me and why. But I recovered. And like anyone else who experiences significant trauma, I had to make sense of it and incorporate it’s meaning into my psychological functioning and the way in which I would relate to others in the future.

Almost automatically, a couple of things unfolded. Police officers emphasize constantly to each other the importance of officer safety, which includes being very aware of your surroundings. Crises happen suddenly and without warning and officers are rolling around the community expected to respond. So I learned really bad things can happen at any moment, and I want to be prepared not surprised by them. This leads to an altered form of consciousness called hypervigilance. Hypervigilance leads to hyperarousal – a physiological condition. The vigilance does not lessen when one takes off the uniform and goes home – bad things can happen there too. So police officers who care about officer safety and responding effectively experience on-going hyperarousal. This condition is similar to the effects of combat – from a psychological and physiological perspective, officers are essentially in career-long, low-level, sustained combat.

And of course I went on to experience many more incidents like this one – both good and bad surprises of all types. And of necessity, I adjusted. And I gathered the psychological protections necessary to function, some of them not so healthy – dissociation, withdrawal [isolation, repression, intellectualization].

Fast forward to 2010. I had retired from policing and was working as a clinician for the Washington DC Metropolitan Police. We responded to officer–involved shootings and other traumatic incidents in the field providing immediate support, debriefed those involved, and had a general mental health practice taking care of police officers and their families. About a third of my caseload was police couples. Every day I was privileged to hear the intensely personal stories of police families who among other things, were wrestling with the effects of hypervigilance and hyperarousal – couples that didn’t really yet have an explanation for their distance, irritation, lack of connectedness and the corresponding need for self-soothing [time alone, alcohol, gambling, spending, eating]. Obviously I’m not talking about every police family, but the incidence of these work-related, trauma-related struggles seemed really high. And the suffering and consequences were painful to observe.

So what do these two experiences mean for us? Where is social work in all of this? During my long career, I have never met another police officer who went to social work school or a social worker who spent time working as a police officer. I have never heard of a field placement at a police department. I have not ever once heard of a social work faculty member contacting a police department to do research. I’ve met very few social workers who chose to specialize in treating law enforcement personnel.

How come? Is that because we are progressives, committed to our idea of social justice and the police are brutal, racist, oppressive thugs? Social workers work in probation, prisons. We treat murderers, sexual predators but as a profession, our interest in those who keep us safe from them is – absent? Why is it that a profession that has so much to say about social justice is so glaringly absent from a key component of our justice institutions? I think it’s worth reflecting on. But more importantly, I think a tremendous opportunity to have a positive impact on social justice sits waiting for us.

Let’s shift our focus now to police – community relations. My comments will focus on police relations with the African-American community. But its very important to note that San Diego has many groups who call it home, who have had an historical experience with colonization and oppression…even slavery. So I think my remarks have broader application.

By now we are all familiar with the scrutiny American police are facing because of the recent actions by officers leading to the deaths of African-American men in Ferguson, Cincinnati, and New York. A powerful narrative has been reenergized…police are racist; largely because of their racism they use excessive force, including lethal force against, particularly, African-Americans, leading to their tragic, illegal and unnecessary suffering and death. In fact, the Justice Department just released a report describing a “pattern of police bias and use of excessive force” against African-American citizens by police in Ferguson. Various responses have been put forth including civil disobedience to motivate change, calls for more oversight and prosecution of police, better training, and often-vague proposals to enhance trust between police and minority communities.

Join me in noting the following historical facts, and imagine if you can, that they relate to you and your forebears [Library of Congress, NY Times and PBS]:

1. In 1636, the American slave carrier ship the Desire, was built and launched in Massachusetts, beginning Colonial North America’s slave trade – not the deep South, Massachusetts.

2. Slavery was legal and practiced in each of the original 13 colonies.

3. In 1640, Virginia established in law the concept of being a black slave for life; in 1682, inherited slavery – the child of a slave is a slave.

4. The next 100 years sees increasing economic reliance on slavery and the culturally sanctioned, systematic dehumanization of a people by the dominant society.

5. At the time of the Civil War in 1861, the United States had 4 million slaves, living in bondage in 15 states.

6. Slavery didn’t really end with the Civil War, at least not economic and cultural bondage. Legalized slavery was replaced with “Jim Crow” laws – which guaranteed racial segregation, the disenfranchisement of black voters; and the systematic exclusion of African-Americans from mainstream American political and economic life.

7. Jim Crow Laws were the law of the land where enacted until 1964-65 when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed.

8. In 2014, legitimately elected, senior politicians in one of our great States passed a political party platform promoting the repeal of the Voting Rights Law. A federal public official who garnered enough support to participate in recent Presidential campaigns is on record opposing the Civil Rights Law.

The fact is the struggle to end the formal, legal, sanctioned subjugation of millions of people has been occurring during your immediate family’s lifetime. This is not ancient history. But forget the politics… just consider the psychology. What would it be like to live in a society that has spent centuries communicating to you and your family that their bondage and subjugation was legally, ethically, religiously and culturally approved; a society that remains in some quarters seriously ambivalent about changing this perspective? Would you feel safe? Valued? Would you tend to trust State authority?

Social scientists and clinicians have developed pretty solid evidence of the intergenerational transmission of trauma – traumatized people transmit some of the effects to their offspring. The children of holocaust survivors for example suffer some of the same symptoms as their traumatized parents. Evidence is mounting on the transmission of PTSD symptoms to second-generation survivors of combat, war, and torture.

I would like to suggest to you that a failed interaction between a police officer and a member of the community may be a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult to explain than just accusing the cop of being racist. Of course an officer may be racist, or by virtue of his attitude or behavior may, even unwittingly, trigger suspicion and mistrust. But distrust of State authority can be really strong in some communities leading officers – racist or not – to experience repeatedly indifference, lack of cooperation, anger and violence. And for some interactions no amount of individual good intentions, rapport building skills or cultural sensitivity may suffice in overcoming the gap.

A few weeks before I retired from the police department, I responded to a call of a family disturbance in Eastern Chula Vista – a prosperous, manicured suburb. I arrived with my officers to find 4 family members fighting with and trying to control a drunken 18 year old who had already assaulted his uncle and did a lot of damage to the house. The family was losing the fight and the adolescent showed no evidence of slowing down. When we arrived, the young man’s mother began screaming at us saying “I didn’t call the police!!” His nine-year-old sister had called. It took several officers to separate the parties, get the young man cuffed, reassure the child who called, and then manage him as he started head banging when we placed him in a police car. His mother became increasingly upset and vocal about our presence. I decided he couldn’t stay because of his condition, and the likelihood the disturbance and injuries would continue. So I made the decision to arrest him and transport him to jail [child endangerment, misdemeanor battery committed in our presence, 5150 evaluation].

The mother became overwhelmed. I didn’t really understand why, because by now things had settled down and I had explained that we might even be able to release him in the morning without charges. She was beside herself, and started keening, lamenting that we were going to kill her son in jail. And then, stupid me, I got a clue. The family was African-American and this middle class suburban mom was worried that her son was going to be killed by the police. She actually left the scene and drove down to the police department intending to enter the jail facility to assure his safety. I was able to intercept her at the parking lot and have our Watch Commander join us to discuss her worries. We spoke standing in the parking lot for about 45 minutes; she permitted us to reassure her and finally calmed. Her son was released the next morning to her without charges.

My officers and I responded to this call expecting to help a child in trouble and protect a family. Nothing about this family or their behavior changed our goal. Her response was to be in mortal fear for her son’s life. This is history and trauma talking. During our initial contact with her and her family, she was sure that police presence meant only bad things were going to happen. And in a way, she was correct, at least on a psychological level. She was acting based on what she knew literally at the bottom of her soul to be true. But so were we. We had a noble mission, however humble and we were going to discharge our duties as safely and sensitively as possible, even in the face of resistance.

Of course the police need to disavow racism in all its forms and be held accountable and cooperate fully when they fall short. But historically disenfranchised communities need help in recognizing and accepting the legitimate use of State power; ultimately they need to share in it. The goal isn’t to just end racism in policing; the goal is to have all communities see cops as there own. So that when officers respond to that family again, that worried mother doesn’t see a problem walking through her front door, but rather her other son – this one dressed in blue.

Our field could make a huge contribution to law enforcement professionals and the lives of the vulnerable communities they police if we engaged in the space between the two – if we applied what we know about psychodynamics, person-in-environment; and the effects of trauma – transforming the current narrative. I hope you will end the day today willing to consider that there is a special role for social work in addressing these issues in a much more substantive way.

David M. Eisenberg began his social work career in 1971 as a trainee social worker for the Buckinghamshire County Council, Aylesbury, England. Since then, his broad career has included stints as a social policy researcher, psychotherapist, supervisor, administrator, and instructor. In an unusual move for a social progressive, in 1989, Dr. Eisenberg took a break from his social work career and became a municipal police officer – a “street cop”, first working for the Sierra Madre Police Department in Los Angeles County and then for the Chula Vista Police Department. His assignments have included patrol, narcotics enforcement, community relations, psychiatric emergency response and serving as a liaison officer to Mexican law enforcement counterparts. Since retiring in 2007 after 16 years of police service, Dr. Eisenberg has worked as a psychotherapist for the Washington DC Metropolitan Police and today, is a Senior Social Worker at the San Diego VA Medical Center caring for suicidal veterans. He holds both a Master’s and Doctorate degree from the Bryn Mawr College School of Social Work and recently completed advanced studies in psychodynamic psychotherapy at the Washington School of Psychiatry