Accountability, Resilience and Justice: Towards a Trauma-informed Approach to Oversight
In the spirit of Sankofa, I began 2018 by looking back at the last year and thinking about where we are going – as an association, as a movement, and as a nation. In doing so, I am thinking about two intertwined concepts: trauma and resilience.
The year 2017 was traumatizing for many people in our nation. We heard unprecedented calls for division and disunity from the highest levels of government – from the targeting of immigrants and sanctuary cities, to telling our nation’s police “please don’t be too nice,” to the wave of revelations and reactions to sexual assault and harassment by men. Add to this decades and centuries of discrimination, abuse, violence, and oppression, and you have a combination of personal, community, and historical trauma: all events that shatter an individual's or community’s sense of self and safety in the world, overwhelming their ability to adapt and thrive.
At the same time, we have seen and been part of unprecedented efforts – at all levels – to continue the work to create more just and peaceful communities and to resist efforts to move backwards. This is the daily manifestation of resilience – what has been described by the American Psychological Association as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”
In the current moment, being trauma-informed helps us understand why so many victims of crime – and of police misconduct – have not come forward. In too many cases, they have not been believed because so few understand the impact of trauma on the brain and memory. There are often additional experiences of different universal traumas as well: from disasters, terrorism and mass-casualty events to interpersonal trauma, oppression and marginalization, and historical trauma.
What has this meant for those of us in civilian oversight, and how does it inform the way in which we move forward? First, we must recognize the trauma experienced by everyone we work with: victims and survivors, law enforcement, and ourselves. Trauma is a normal reaction to abnormal events, and affects memory, reactions, and behavior – both in the moment and after the events. It is important to remember that trauma affects us as much as it affects the people we serve. We need to take care of ourselves to be able to continue doing our work. We all know about “putting on your own mask before helping others” – to make sure you take care of yourself so that you can help others. This often means taking off that other kind of mask that says, “I’m fine” and being open, honest, and vulnerable enough to get the help and support we need.
When we look at our history, we also see incredible stories of resilience from individuals and from communities. Many individuals, including some of us in civilian oversight, have taken that trauma and transformed it, becoming advocates, helpers, social workers, attorneys, and yes, police officers.
Looking at the work we do through a trauma-informed lens can be transformative. It allows us to better understand our experience and the experience of others. It also says a lot about what happens in policing that isn’t as simple as overt racism or implicit bias.
Accountability for misconduct and overt racism and understanding and addressing implicit bias are necessary but insufficient to address the problem. Understanding the complicated role that trauma plays in the actions, behavior, and outcomes of policing is essential in our work to create systems of civilian oversight that address both “what went wrong” and how to ensure that policing and law enforcement are responsive to the needs, values, and expectations of the communities they serve moving forward.
Again, in the spirit of Sankofa, I am looking forward to working with all of you as we build and support resilience through our work to enhance accountability and transparency in policing, build community trust, and ensure policing that is responsive to community needs.