Police Psychology: Historical Trauma and American Policing

Posted: January 30, 2018 in Police Stress
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Historical Trauma and American Policing

by Dr. Philip J. Swift

Historical or multigenerational trauma is the communal emotional and psychological injury of a group caused by traumatic experiences or abuses that transcends generations. When an individual or group is emotionally or psychologically injured by an event(s), the injury can be passed to non-traumatized individuals and across generations through unconscious cues, affective messages, storytelling, ceremonies or rituals, lessons, genetic damage, and exposure to symptoms of historical trauma.   Symptoms of historical trauma include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, anger, guilt, substance abuse, loss of cultural and religious rituals, destruction of the family unit, and degrading economic/political/social capital. When these symptoms are addressed in a clinical setting, they are often treated without consideration for the complex and lengthy trauma history shared by the individual, their family, and their community.

Trauma can be categorized as either large or small trauma(s). Large traumas include genocide, combat/war, segregations, displacement, economic deficiency, and natural disasters. Small traumas, which are often overlooked by those studying and treating historical trauma, include the death of a child or family member, prenatal exposure to abuse, and routine exposure to violence. Regardless of the type of trauma that a person or group is directly or indirectly exposed to, historical trauma occurs when large and/or small traumas are passed on to non-traumatized persons.  Historical trauma can result in altered perspectives, cognition, health, behavior, and personality.

Historical trauma theory is based on the belief that trauma is experienced across several generations and cannot be forgiven or rectified in a single generation.  Originally, historical trauma was theorized as a construct to explain the multigenerational impact of the shared traumatic experiences of North American Indigenous peoples. The result of historical trauma studies revealed a correlation between trauma experienced by Indigenous people following the colonization of North America and the trauma experiences and symptoms of successive generations. Perhaps just as much was the effect the Holocaust had on the Jewish population of the world.  It added to the idea that the population was persecuted, and they must prepare to avoid persecution in the future.  Following the inception of historical trauma theory, the theory has been used to explore the impact of the unique traumatic histories of minority and gang ridden communities.

The importance of understanding the impact of historical trauma on minority communities has made it a recurring theme in cultural sensitivity/awareness training for law enforcement officers and for understanding the strained relationships between law enforcement and low-income communities. Although, recognizing the impact of historical trauma is key to healing, empowering, and bringing minority communities together I believe that historical trauma theory could and should be used to understand and treat the traumatic histories of non-traditional communities to include law enforcement communities.

Are law enforcement communities impacted by the traumatic experiences of its members? Are members of those communities experiencing secondary trauma, or a trauma they heard from others?  Do those traumas transcend generations? In my opinion; yes, as theorized below.

Upon entering a law enforcement training academy new law enforcement officers are regaled with stories and sometimes structured classes that describe the in the line of duty deaths of fellow law enforcement officers at the hands of a community member as well as the aftermath of those deaths. Further, new officers receive some form of “self-care” training discussing topics such as suicide, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, isolation, divorce, and domestic violence. As the training continues, officers are continually trained for and to survive “worst case scenarios” in order to prepare them for what they may face, however this training also serves to further convince officers that their life and wellbeing is constantly at risk from unpredictable and unseen threats.

As new officers leave academies and complete field training programs they are taught and come to believe that the only people they can depend on are their fellow officers and that community members represent a constant threat to their personal safety, financial wellbeing, and self-worth. This belief structure is reinforced when law enforcement officers and agencies come under scrutiny by persons officers see as outsiders and uncapable of judging the actions of the officer or agency. Recently, this scrutiny took a more drastic turn resulting in public calls for the assassination of law enforcement officers.

As a law enforcement officer that has experienced these events I can state that these traumatic experiences have left officers feeling abandoned by the public they have chosen to serve.  Their individual ethics and values are being questioned.  These types of experiences can and do lead to a feeling of isolation and a strong loyalty to fellow officers and those that have made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. As predicted in the academy, some officers experiencing these traumatic events get divorced, become alcoholics, domestic violence perpetrators, and develop symptoms of mental health issues.

Due to similarity in the traumatic experiences of law enforcement, Indigenous and minority communities and in manifested behaviors and symptoms of community members, I believe that law enforcement communities are as likely to suffer from the effects of historical trauma as others. This conclusion is supported by studies in which family members experience trauma and secondary trauma when domestic abuse occurs in the home. Based on this conclusion, I believe that this is an issue that requires academic inquiry and attention in both the clinical and social setting.  The fact that law enforcement communities have shared experiences could serve to bring these communities together rather than divide them.


Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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