The Traumatization of Our Police

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The problem of traumatized police officers doesn’t need to take the most tragic route, the shooting of our citizens, to be dangerous. Traumatized police officers erode day-to-day contact with the public through behavior that is counter-productive. Such behaviors leave both police and citizens angry, frustrated, and fearful.

My friend Alexander Reed Kelly, a Western Washington University graduate and former editor of Truthdig, now lives in the Hudson Valley where he is running for the New York legislature. He writes on his website from time to time about issues, some of which he would face should he arrive in Albany. Police traumatization is an enormous problem, not only in New York state, but in our own state of Washington. Alex writes in a recent article “The Police Are Traumatized”:

“...police work is inherently traumatizing.Whether they ever have cause to reach for their guns or not, police officers are constantly subject to threats of violence. It is part of the water in which they swim. Left untreated, the consequences of trauma can be disastrous. Lengthy exposure disrupts normal brain functioning. It undermines our ability to think clearly and carefully and regulate our emotions. And it makes us more suspicious, less trusting and even paranoid. It increases the likelihood that we will respond to stressful experiences aggressively.”

Speaking with Cristin Sauter, a social worker involved directly with the issue of traumatized police, Alex learns that “..fortunately, the effects can be treated, even reversed. But it appears that few officers seek the therapy that the state [New York in this case] makes available to them.” Alex continues, “Like other people, police can lose consciousness of how their behavior affects others, and they should be trained to be very knowledgeable of just that, because both community safety and the psychological and physical well being of officers depend on it.”

Locally, our police receive de-escalation training to reduce the possibility of police encounters becoming violent. Former Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook and present Chief David Doll are proponents of such training, for which we should be thankful. Our own Mayor Kelli Linville has taken the training.

Across the country, mindfulness training programs such as the Mindful Badge are being touted as routes to reducing police officer stress in order to reduce or eliminate “encounters gone bad.” This from an article on the actions of the Dallas, TX police after an Army veteran killed five police officers in 2016 (US police forces are practicing mindfulness to reduce officers’ stress—and violence).

The technique’s [mindfulness] goal is to change the way officers manage stress and their emotions, emphasizing a deliberate, thoughtful response—and not a rash reaction. The aims are twofold: to help officers cope with trauma, and to reduce violence. Mindfulness has been gaining steam as an element of US police training in recent years, and is being introduced in departments including Seattle, Washington and Madison, Wisconsin. Research shows that because of the violence, pressure, and demands of the job, police officers have some of the highest levels of stress among all occupations.

We need good police officers. The Washington state Law Enforcement Academy turned away from military style training several years ago as such a focus was found to be counterproductive in a law enforcement environment. To their credit, our local police department has shed several bad apples over the last few years. Bringing on new police officers to replace those who have not performed well is an expensive and time consuming process. Better we should maintain through training those we currently have on the job and they continue to receive training to protect themselves and the public.

[Note: Full disclosure - I served for about 6 years as a Senior Volunteer with the Bellingham Police force.]

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Michael Riordan

Jun 17, 2018

Thanks for this, Dick. It helps me see police confrontations with suspects from the other side of the badge.


Ralph Schwartz

Jun 18, 2018

As I read this I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. The biggest issue facing society vis-a-vis the police is systematic abuse and killing of black men by officers. What of the undiagnosed and untreated trauma felt by black people who have encountered the police? Is the untreated trauma you refer to causing police officers’ unconscious biases against black people to become more overt and at times even violent? Bellingham police are not above accusations of racial profiling, so this question is locally relevant. Your article could have at least acknowledged this issue ; otherwise it comes off as a little too much “Blue Lives Matter” in the current cultural context.


Dick Conoboy

Jun 18, 2018


The point of the article was to bring home the concept that there may be underlying and unconsidered reasons why police officers do what they do.  If we do not understand the entire dynamic that leads to police shooting civilians or of incivility between the police and the public, be they black or otherwise, we will have missed a component of what is necessary to propose remedies.  And “blue lives”, as you describe them, matter, too.


Tim Paxton

Jun 18, 2018

Good police officers?   Bellingham Police are famous world wide thanks to YouTube.    MrWTFCHUCK’s Youtube channel has over 8 million total views of the abusive, vindictive, crooked, lying,  stalking,  armed rascals doing their local public service.

“Chuck”, a budding nature video journalist, got his start filming the BPD arrest of a drunken pair of young women around midnight on Holly Street.  When his camera spotted a BPD member allegedly  banging the head of one of  the handcuffed  girls against the frame of his police car back seat, Chuck (and his video chip) became their new crisis target.  The cops descended on him, arresting and put him in the hospital, confiscating his camera and video chip, charging him with the usual : resisting, obstruction and Wire Tapping (5 year prison possible).   All for the crime of video taping BPD police.  

Stephen Pidgeon, an attorney from Everett and former candidate for State AG’s office came to the rescue and helped get the City to drop  the video taping cops arrest charges.  Other wise Chuck would still be in prison.   No Bellingham Attorneys came forward to volunteer to help.   BPD had to also cough up the  newly erased, confiscated, video chip, which was promptly data recovered.   (Charges against the two women were also dropped, likely because the BPD had stolen the video footage of their arrest to use at ir the women’s trial. Chuck told them:  “Nope, can’t use it.”):

YouTube  provides a constant, 24/7, eternal video coverage of BPD stalking, making false arrests, charging Chuck with driving an unlicensed camper, maliscious prosecution, not catching a bike thief,  and generally looking like vindictive, retaliatory, lying, poorly trained and managed, armed bullies.     You can watch it all on YouTube.    Or not.


Dick Conoboy

Jun 19, 2018


Yes, we need good police officers.  This bears repetition. 

I looked at about a half dozen of those videos and quite frankly, I could not determine exactly what was happening in most.   Maybe something nefarious was taking place but the videos did not bring that home.  In any event, my article was about discovering what feeds into police officers attitudes and actions.  I was not writing  here to attack or defend but to discover.


Tip Johnson

Jun 19, 2018

With the caveat that perhaps no cops could be worse than some bad cops, the question remains how much is too much of a necessary thing?

For another emerging perspective:

Alex Vitale in “The end of Policing” argues that training police is not the solution. We need to reduce what we ask police to do, not try to train them to be nicer at things they shouldn’t be doing. Police training will never reduce strained relations between law enforcement and minority or impoverished communities. Law enforcement tends to make the problems it is supposed to solve worse.

Vitale argues that policing has proven ineffective against narcotics, street gangs, border patrol, prostitution, homelessness, mental illness, misbehaving adolescents and most social problems. Despite overfilled jails, the streets remain full of these problems. The underfunding of social services and the overfunding of police causes law enforcement to be used for many situations for which it is ill suited. This frustrates the authority of officers and often leads to escalated situations.  Instead, we should decriminalize many behaviors and promote non–law enforcement solutions, funding better education, housing, nutrition, mental health,  job training and job creation that pays a living wage.  Continued expansion of police authority is inconsistent with community empowerment, social justice and ultimately public safety.

But that’s just a pipe dream, not a billy club solution.


Dick Conoboy

Jun 19, 2018


Well said.  All of what you mentioned is what leads to traumatization of both the police and the public. 

Gee, Tip, we agree on something!  :-)