Trauma, adversity, and crime
The police are ideally positioned to be a service responding to trauma in society. Rates of trauma are notably high among people who engage in crime. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as family violence, childhood abuse and experiences of being in care, increase the likelihood of offending across the lifespan. UK prison studies also demonstrate disproportionately high rates of ACEs among inmates.
Understanding how traumatic experiences shape people’s life trajectories is a core feature of becoming trauma-informed. Experiences of multiple or chronic adversity in childhood have been linked to impairments in emotion regulation, attention and impulse control, interpersonal problems and school failure, drug misuse and mental health problems. In short, trauma, especially early trauma, can be considered a significant risk factor for criminal involvement.
In short, trauma, especially early trauma, can be considered a significant risk factor for criminal involvement.
Many UK police forces are now working towards a trauma-informed policing culture (Association of Directors of Public Health (ASDPH), 2021), which recognises and responds to the effects of trauma (SAMHSA, 2014). However, evaluation of trauma-related initiatives is scarce, and still, less is known about how officers perceive training. While interventions may lead to positive attitude change, changing attitudes is not always sufficient to lead to a change in practice.
This article presents insights from officers’ perceptions of trauma awareness-raising initiatives in Police Scotland. The first focused on officers’ perceptions of an ACEs awareness-raising session. The second ongoing study involved officers who had undertaken NHS Education Scotland (NES) online training.
Contextual relevance was highly important. Police and civilian staff participating in the NES training clearly articulated a nuanced understanding of trauma, including complex trauma. Where the contextual relevance was less clear, officers were often resistant to key messages, characterising them as ‘common sense’.
Empowerment and application
Knowledge gained from interventions empowered staff to speak up on issues relating to wellbeing or mental health. However, police staff reported having limited insight into how to practically implement trauma-informed working, other than ‘being a decent person’. Being trauma-aware was viewed by some as a ‘soft’ approach that had the potential to interfere with their capacity to do policing work. Policing work has limited procedural flexibility, and there were implicit fears about being held responsible if trauma-informed approaches compromised the safety of their colleagues or the public.
Individual versus service level change
There is no single correct approach to initiating a trauma-informed police culture, and initiatives are often aimed at changing the attitudes of individuals. While senior staff highlighted that ‘buy-in’ from staff is essential to any service-level change, officers resisted the idea that individuals could change a culture. Instead, they noted that explicit service-level guidance was required for them to be confident in working in trauma-informed ways.
In a trauma-informed service, every individual should have access to training. However, police and civilian staff in specific roles appeared to find the training particularly beneficial. An example is Police Custody Security Officers who are in extended contact with individuals in custody, offering an opportunity to forge a relationship and potentially route an individual towards support for core issues related to the crime.
Police work is inherently traumatising, with police routinely exposed to trauma, both directly and indirectly. At the same time, officers noted that the prevailing culture requires them to appear impervious to trauma, hindering conversations about mental health and support-seeking among colleagues. Trauma interventions were viewed as potentially facilitating a cultural shift, whereby officers would have increased awareness of their own and their colleagues’ mental health and coping capacity. This is important as people who work in human services tend to have a high prevalence of ACEs themselves.
While initiatives to create awareness of trauma and its impacts have the potential to lead to positive attitude change, moving towards trauma-informed practice in policing may be slower. The latter will require workforce development and changes to organisational practice. It will require addressing the individual and cultural barriers that potentially limit individuals’ capacity to work in trauma-informed ways.
Dr Karen Goodall is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Together with colleagues Drs Karri Gillespie-Smith and Zara Brodie, she has worked with Police Scotland on projects exploring the impact of trauma-informed care initiatives.
Asthon, K., Bellis, M. & Hughes, K. (2016). Adverse childhood experiences and their association with health-harming behaviours and mental wellbeing in the Welsh adult population: a national cross-sectional survey. The Lancet, 388(2), S21. https://tinyurl.com/2p82bh2z
Association of Directors of Public Health: The Wave Trust. (2021). Guidance for the Policing Sector: Creating ACE-informed place: Promoting a whole systems approach to tackling adverse childhood experiences in local communities. https://tinyurl.com/uxmuyvtk
Bateson K., McManus M., Johnson G. (2020). Understanding the use, and misuse, of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in trauma-informed policing. The Police Journal, 93, 2, 131-145. https://tinyurl.com/2p9yx58w
Carnie, J., Broderick, R., Cameron, J., Downie, D., & Williams, G. (2017). 16th Prisoner Survey 2017. Edinburgh: Scottish Prison Service. https://tinyurl.com/2wzu9yf8
Craig, J.M., Piquero, A.R., Farrignton, D.P. & Ttofi, M.M. (2017). A little risk goes a long bad way: Adverse childhood experiences and life-course offending in the Cambridge study. Journal of Criminal Justice, 53, 34-45. https://tinyurl.com/mry2856v
Esaki N. & Larkin H. (2013). Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) among Child Service Providers. Families in Society, 94, 31-37. https://tinyurl.com/35x5xnn6
Ford, K., Bellis, M.A., Hughes, K. et al. (2020). Adverse childhood experiences: a retrospective study to understand their associations with lifetime mental health diagnosis, self-harm or suicide attempt, and current low mental wellbeing in a male Welsh prison population. Health Justice 8, 13. https://tinyurl.com/5dcjjtez
Gillespie-Smith, K. Brodie, Z. Collins, K. Deacon, K. & Goodall, K. (2019). Research report: Moving towards trauma-informed policing: An exploration of police officers’ attitudes and perceptions towards Adverse Childhood Experiences. Scottish Institute of Policing Research report. https://tinyurl.com/3djkwn9s
Larkin, H., Shields, J. J., & Anda, R. F. (2012). The health and social consequences of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) across the lifespan: An introduction to prevention and intervention in the community. Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 40, 263–270. https://tinyurl.com/yeyr95sk
SAMHSA (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD. https://tinyurl.com/mt6dnkkk
Scottish Executive (2021). Trauma-informed practice: toolkit. https://tinyurl.com/2p9eua5p
Randall, M. & Haskell, L. (2013). Trauma-Informed Approaches to Law: Why Restorative Justice Must Understand Trauma and Psychological Coping. The Dalhousie Law Journal, 501. https://tinyurl.com/mrx85k39
Weissman D.G., Bitran, D., Miller, A.B,. et al. (2019). Difficulties with emotion regulation as a transdiagnostic mechanism linking child maltreatment with the emergence of psychopathology. Developmental Psychopathology, 3, 899–915. https://tinyurl.com/djjxr74e
Drop of Light | shutterstock.com