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There’s Trauma on Both Sides of the Police-Community Relationship

In New Jersey, we’re trying to build greater empathy and understanding between law enforcement and the citizens they serve.

Published: August 11, 2016

Cross-posted on The Washington Post

James E. Johnson is a member of the board of directors of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and of the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. He previously served as an undersecretary for enforcement at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

“We need to do something different.”

That was the consensus among community and civil rights leaders in New Jersey after a grand jury decided in December 2014 to hold no one accountable for the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island the previous summer after he was violently taken into custody by officers with the New York City Police Department. These leaders joined forces to develop a different approach to a long-simmering problem: the often fractious and sometimes deadly relationship between law enforcement and the municipalities it serves.

This was the second time many of us had joined this mission. In 2006, I led part of the group when I chaired New Jersey’s Advisory Committee on Police Standards. At that time we developed a bill, which eventually became law, to protect citizens against racial profiling by state troopers. This time, our task was to bring law enforcement and the community together to have candid conversations and solve the persistent challenges of police-community engagement and related issues of safety. And we’ve taken key steps in the right direction by addressing the trauma that can occur on both sides of the police-community relationship.

I’ve always approached these issues from the same starting point: Growing up in Montclair, N.J., I knew and followed my family’s version of “the rules” for African Americans when interacting with police: Always leave a store with a receipt; always keep your hands on the steering wheel if you are stopped; and if you believe you’re being mistreated, comply now, complain later. As a federal prosecutor and later as a senior enforcement official in the Clinton administration, I grappled with the practice of profiling by what was then called the U.S. Customs Service and confronted the tragic death of an unarmed black teenager killed by a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent in Houston. I have spent decades listening to fears, concerns and anger expressed on all sides of the policing debate.

Though it was clear to me before, the events of this summer have underscored the widening chasm between police and the citizens they police, and confirmed for me the urgency of identifying solutions, before these issues deepen our societal divide. If anyone has any doubt about the entrenched divide between communities and police, they need only read the damning Justice Department report on policing in Baltimore, released this week. Degrading, and at times violent, interactions between some — not all, or even most — police officers and the communities they serve contributes to an environment of anger and distrust that leaves many African American and Latino children manifesting symptoms of stress and trauma akin to those who have lived in war zones.

And many who patrol those communities show the same signs of stress and trauma. In 2013, John Violanti and researchers at the University of Buffalo published a comprehensive five-year study showing that police officers suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome at rates higher than all other demographic and professional groups.

For some, the evidence of strain and trauma on both sides of the divide signals a need for greater empathy and understanding. For others, perhaps feeling a need to choose, the impulse may be to assert that their “side” has the greater moral claim to sympathy. The understandable instinct to choose sides misses a vital point: Police and the communities they’re supposed to serve share the same space, necessarily interact and can be deeply, sometimes tragically affected by each other. Mutual understanding can be the difference between continued stalemate and progress.

Over the past 18 months, working in a collaboration called New Jersey Communities Forward, we launched conversations that brought law enforcement and community members together to share hard truths, including the desire for law enforcement protection rather than a sense of persecution; candor about the impact of poverty, and frustration about attempts to alleviate it; and coping mechanisms that may lead some officers to wall off their emotions from the people they serve. More than 1,000 people in seven communities joined those discussions, and more than 80 community members have been trained to facilitate them.

We have developed specific action plans for enhanced community policing: reviving police-sponsored athletic programs, reinvigorating neighborhood watches and facilitating dialogue between police leadership and local civil rights organizations. We also have supported state-level policy changes designed to bring communities together with law enforcement by increasing transparency and strengthening accountability. For example, the coalition worked with the state attorney general as he developed a statewide policy on body cameras and made the policy concrete by providing a robust funding stream that has led to more than 150 communities beginning to equip patrol and other law enforcement officers with body cameras. A key member of the coalition, the New Jersey NAACP, sponsored implicit bias training for police from various jurisdictions.

Police chiefs also have seized the initiative. To broaden an understanding of the pressures on law enforcement, the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police offered state NAACP chapter presidents, among others, the opportunity to use a firearms simulator as a way to get a better understanding of the choices made by officers in threatening situations.

Many New Jersey law enforcement personnel have joined Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a nonpartisan national group working to shift the public’s view of law enforcement. On a local level, NJCF is working to develop a program that would take respected community members and assign them to be mentors for new officers. The point is to make it clear from the early days of an officer’s career that community members are their partners and people from whom they must learn and upon whom they must rely to succeed. This approach seeks to make it easier, even natural, for community members to become invested in the success of new officers. This level of engagement should create an environment in which trust — the cornerstone of durable cooperation — is more likely to take root.

The times call for innovation. Better laws and practices are necessary but insufficient agents of transformation. It’s incumbent on police and citizens to dig deeper to understand, to act with compassion and to adopt strategies that acknowledge the challenges and trauma that weigh on both sides of the enduring divide. Because fatigue impairs judgment. Trauma distorts it. Terrified people make terrible decisions. And haters threaten us all. We have seen that play out repeatedly with tragic results. When you combine those factors with implicit bias, from which no one is completely immune, the way forward comes into focus.

A young black man may be ambivalent about the police officer who approaches him, but he has a vital interest in that officer’s judgment and everything that determines it: training; susceptibility to implicit bias; the likelihood of discipline if the officer treats citizens poorly; and — a factor that is often ignored — the officer’s level of stress and trauma.

Likewise, the police officer conducting an investigative stop or seeking a witness in a criminal case has a vested interest in whether that young man has been traumatized by witnessing acts of violence, or has been made angry or fearful by his previous experiences with law enforcement, including violent or humiliating personal encounters and horrific scenes played out on videotape.

Policymakers, police and citizens must work to understand how both players in that scenario contribute to making split-second decisions that could be the difference between life and death.

(Photo: Millville, N.J., police chaplain Bob Ossler prays with Baton Rouge Police Cpl. Joseph Keller, left, as Baton Rouge Police Cpl. Trina Dorsey receives a hug from a woman near a makeshift memorial for three officers killed July 19 in Baton Rouge. Joshua Lott/Getty Images)