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For police officers who deal in life and death on a daily basis, the psychological effects can be unbearable. Developing tools for self-care at home and community-building on the job can lead to healthier, happier communities.

Written By Gretchen Kalwinski

By Gretchen Kalwinski 

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Years before he studied psychology at Saybrook University, Dr. Rodger Broomé was a police officer in Utah. On patrol one night, and with an 18-year-old student on a ride-along to observe police duties, Broomé noticed a car filled with teenagers driving erratically. When he pulled them over, he determined that the driver lacked I.D. for the out-of-state plates.

As he stood at the window ready to record the young man’s information, he heard the unmistakable sound of metal against a seat buckle. His muscles seized up.

Assuming the worst—that the sound was a gun—Broomé aimed his pistol at the driver and pulled the trigger back, poised to shoot. But he paused, telling himself to hold his fire until the driver displayed a weapon or fired first.

The object in question turned out to be a tin of Altoids.

The encounter ended peacefully, but it forever changed the course of Broomé’s life. Afterward, he couldn’t stop thinking about how close he came to shooting an unarmed youth. Ultimately, the dramatic incident made him interested in the psychology of police officers and emergency responders, which became his area of doctoral research at Saybrook University.

The subject is a timely one. From the 2012 killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin to the Ferguson riots and the death of Sandra Bland, police departments across the U.S. are facing criticism for their aggression. But these incidents raise many questions, among them: What are the factors that contribute to incidents of police violence? How can this violence be interrupted? And, what can we learn about the psychology behind being an officer that can move us toward an understanding between police and communities?


Humanistic policing

My first time doing CPR was on an infant. The baby didn’t make it and that was life-changing.

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Concerns around police officers’ mental health have shaped the perceptions and research interests of more than a few members of the Saybrook community. Dr. Broomé and Dr. Ginger Charles (both former officers themselves) focused their research around psychological issues in law-enforcement communities. Because of their years “on the job” before arriving at Saybrook, they were compelled by the conflicts they saw between police and citizens, and Saybrook provided an ideal location for deeper thought and study on these issues.

Broomé, who has a master’s and doctorate in psychology from Saybrook, is both a former police officer and a firefighter. He regularly experienced life-and-death scenarios, which he was trained for but also traumatized by.

“My first time doing CPR was on an infant,” he says. “The baby didn’t make it and that was life-changing.” Experiences like these led him to explore the psychology of police officers and emergency responders. Broomé remembers how his Saybrook research opened his mind.

“My goal was to be a clinician so I started off in the humanistic transpersonal psychology program,” he says. “But then I got exposed to social inequality, an area where I was able to engage more.”

Retired police Sergeant Dr. Ginger Charles wrote Police Pursuit of the Common Good, which examines current issues facing law enforcement and vulnerable communities. A focus for her is reminding the police community that there is a big power differential between police and citizens, and that, “It is actually incumbent upon us to extend our hand first, and enter into the relationship with this community.”

Charles received her doctorate in psychology from Saybrook in 2005, where she researched health risk factors in the police community, specifically around health and spirituality.

Today, in her one-year stint in Saybrook’s inaugural Presidential Fellows Program, Charles hopes to “create programs that educate police officers to get their master’s degrees and doctorate degrees in leadership, psychology, and social change—to affect a change in the world.” 

Saybrook’s humanistic tradition, its focus on research, and its philosophy of helping students achieve their full potential provided a good “home” for Charles’ work. A professor suggested the “spiritual approach to policing” when Charles was ready to start her research.

“I realized there was absolutely nothing on it, anywhere in the world,” Charles says. “Saybrook gave me the educational basis to do good research,” she says. “The folks who worked with me, like Dr. Ruth Richards and Donald Rothberg, didn’t care that I was a cop. They were just excited that I was doing work that would affect the world.”

Saybrook student Odell Johnson, who is working toward his Ph.D. in Psychology, believes it is crucial that the conversation about police officers and their communities evolve beyond blame. 

“There is more healing needed than policing,” he says. “Police should be thinking, ‘How can I serve in a healing capacity based on all the information I have and the training I received’—in order to really ‘serve and protect.’ If they do that, I think the community will embrace them with open arms because they will feel protected and know the police are there for the greater good.

 


"Meaning-making" in police work

The warm welcome Broomé and Charles received at Saybrook is a reflection of the university’s belief in the power of people from diverse areas of expertise coming together to examine the world’s problems.

Broomé has seen so many emergency scenarios that he has a unique perspective on how these professionals handle their regular proximity to emergencies. He thinks it’s important to consider that officers and first responders are exposed to stressful and violent events on a regular basis: “everything from car accidents to cancer patients and dog bites.”

His research considers the effects that frequent exposure to traumatic events has on these workers’ basic human functioning and decision-making.

“A civilian may have a traffic accident several times over her life, [but because] these incidents happen with periods of regular life in-between, she can heal,” he says. “But first responders, firefighters, and police officers are exposed to trauma on a daily basis.”

Broomé wondered: What did frequent traumatic experiences mean for these workers’ mental health? Traditional research in this arena shows that police officers, firefighters, and EMTs become more resilient due to this pressure and emotional stress, but Broomé compared this to more recent reports showing that suicides among these professions are actually on the rise.

“That’s why I became passionate about the topic,” he says. “Because working in these fields comes down to people making meaning of their experiences and it seems like the meaning-making that used to materialize for the first responder is no longer in the vein of being heroic and honorable.”

To conduct his doctoral research on officer-involved shootings, Broomé utilized the descriptive phenomenological research method pioneered by Amedeo Giorgi in order to capture the subjectivity of people’s experiences and highlight a more empathetic point of view.

Dr. Charles was also interested in empathy and examined why officers choose the profession. She remembered one compelling instance in her career when mental health became a consideration.

“We had an officer who was a great, teddy bear of a guy, who had to shoot a car thief,” she says. “It was a completely justified shooting but very distressing to him. Afterward, he went through the perfunctory checkboxes and they said, ‘You’re good to go [back on the job].’”

“But he mentally deteriorated and his work suffered,” Charles says. “He got to the point where he was ready to commit suicide, and we were able to get him help. We came close to losing him because everyone thought, ‘He should just get over it,’ rather than helping him.”

According to Charles, it’s particularly difficult for those in the law-enforcement profession to ask for help or admit emotional weakness.

“You have many officers who contemplate suicide because of the pressure and feeling unsupported,” she says. “But there is also shame around suicide because they are supposed to be a protector, and suicide would feel like admitting failure.”


 

I interviewed people of color and asked them how they wanted to be policed, and people cried because no one ever asks.

Looking to the future

Given Charles’ and Broomé’s research, what is the path forward? How can police officers and communities extend hands, share insights, and exchange ideas to power progress? Here are some of their recommendations.

1. Build community-led policing:

While Charles’ researched for her book Police Pursuit of the Common Good, she became interested in community-led policing. She believes police must communicate directly with citizens.

“There’s absolutely no contact with a community as far as how to let communities learn to police themselves,” she says. “I interviewed people of color and asked them how they wanted to be policed, and people cried because no one ever asks.”

While she does not believe the U.S. police community is asking these questions, Charles says, in the U.K., police do ask the elderly and juveniles how they want to be policed.

“People told me that they want to be policed from a distance,” she says. “In a white neighborhood with lots of cops, people feel safe, but in a neighborhood of color, people are scared because they know someone can get hurt.”

Johnson (who works for the Bay Area’s Department of Housing helping underserved communities gain and maintain access to fair and safe housing) believes that the concept of community policing is an ideal way to repair relationships between police and citizens.

“To understand another person, it’s important to address the context of their experiences,” he says. “Police would benefit from trying to understand the community by tapping into their traditions, beliefs, and systems of thought. There should be efforts by police to sit and talk with people in the community to learn who they are. This would promote a healing relationship outside of the uniform.”

2. Focus on de-escalation:

Charles believes that de-escalation training is key.

“We also don’t teach cops how to verbally de-escalate anymore,” she says. “We give them a gun and all kinds of tools, but in California we spend minimal hours on verbal de-escalation. Yet, everything a police officer does starts with talking.”

The reasons are financial, she says.

“You start looking at where to cut [the budget]. Guns and tools; those are exciting.”

Charles says that the justification is often, “‘They should know how to talk to people already, so let's not waste time.’ The problem is, verbal de-escalation is a skill that must be taught. It's not just talking.”    

Johnson agrees that communication methods are more important than technology.

“Instead of police officers walking into a community with guns, they should be trained to identify with the community,” he says.

 

 

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3. Ensure a sense of service:

When Charles began her research, she realized how revolutionary it was to look at police violence from a spiritual point of view.

 “Since there was absolutely nothing on [this research], the only way I could get literature to review was to look at work done with military personnel and nursing professionals. Then I did a study interviewing police officers about their spiritual approach and found common themes.”

She was surprised to find how important spirituality was to officers.

“What I was hearing in 2013-2014 was that the [police violence incidents] were troubling to officers who were really spiritually centered,” she says. “They started losing meaning and purpose in their job because they weren’t being cared for within the organization.”

She notes a U.K. study in which 350 police officers who had been sick for months with a stress disorder were interviewed and 95 percent said they didn't feel nurtured by their organization.

“When I started to look at those numbers [alongside] the numbers of shootings that were happening,” she says, “that’s when I started to determine there was deterioration inside the organization.”

After teaming up with another researcher, presenting at the FBI Academy, and conducting research in the U.K., Charles discovered the importance of having some kind of faith.

“As long as officers were centered around something outside themselves—some kind of faith, even atheism (because there is a pathway to spiritualism in that, too)—they were healthy,” she says. “This didn’t mean they didn’t screw up, but when they did, they knew how to get back on track. They basically recognized a sense of service.

4. Prioritize self-care:

Broomé and Charles both found that incidents were often attributed to officers feeling a lack of nurturing—not an area most cops are comfortable speaking about. Since officers tend to have a sense of duty about caring for others, the concept of self-care is not embedded in their profession.

But Broomé says that officers need more support with basic quality-of-life issues.

“It should be more on the front end,” he says. “Not trying to ameliorate problems, but preventing them with skills like meditation and nutrition.”

Broomé has a background in martial arts, yoga, and meditation, and believes mindfulness meditation has promise for officers. However, he says, “It’s got to be a holistic plan.”

Charles believes that better nurturing and self-care has to start from the top and trickle down. The police culture is “horrible” at communication, she says, “in terms of not taking care of officers, asking if they’re okay or asking a patrol division, ‘How are you doing?’”

Charles also believes the community needs to ask themselves difficult questions like, “How am I doing in running this organization and serving the community?” According to her, this is the only way this “culture of conflict” can change.

5. Reform a patriarchal system:

Broomé believes we must examine identity issues in the law-enforcement profession to improve the system. But there’s a chasm between an officer’s duties and liberal-arts theories about communication, he says.

“When robberies happen, all the social theory in the world is wonderful but [law enforcement communities] have lethal, practical things to deal with.”

 Broomé notes that police culture is bureaucratic and patriarchal. That’s why he is glad that social sciences and psychology are asking questions about masculinity theory and ‘how we’re raising boys to be men.’ He hopes this will reveal insights about bullying and hazing, things that can later present in conflicts between police and community members. Still, it’s complex to challenge the masculine culture, he says.

He is encouraged by “a lot of good stuff happening in universities and communities trying to bolster community psychology programs and get mental health resources to the communities.” But Broomé also believes it’s important to eliminate poor leadership.

“It’s easy to put the officer in front and say he screwed up,” he says. “Yet the leadership is very toxic in a lot of places across the country.”

 

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It is clear from Broomé’s and Charles’ research that the issues at hand are complex and exist in a complicated ecosystem.

First up, Johnson says, we need to tackle the fear that communities live with on a daily basis.

“There’s a fear that creeps in (that’s not psychologically, mentally, or emotionally healthy) and oppresses these communities,” he says. “The fear takes hold because of the violence happening between police and communities, and it’s an important problem that needs to be addressed.”

Because the fear is so complex, only thoughtful reforms will be effective, Johnson says.

“The fear a person has trickles down to affect their families, their children—it’s very profound.”

Johnson believes that positive progress to correct the disconnect happening between police and communities can begin through [police-led] conversations that build positive rapport. In this way, police can let the community know that they are there to support and assist them.

“If police officers can adopt this mentality, it would be a gateway for them to take that pause, take a moment to consider all the factors before a decision is made, give people the benefit of the doubt, and take action to heal instead of hurt,” he says.

Given Broomé’s experience with the young man in Utah, he couldn’t agree more.