Trauma-Informed Practices Take Center Stage in Law Enforcement Training

PHOENIX – A high proportion of persons who encounter the criminal justice system have experienced past or ongoing trauma, which can disrupt lives and affect behavior, perception and mental state. Recognizing that fact, and preparing law enforcement personnel with trauma-informed policies and practices, can increase safety, reduce recidivism and improve outcomes for all concerned.

Such were some of the key takeaways from “How Being Trauma-Informed Improves Criminal Justice System Responses,” a training conducted Monday and Tuesday by Arizona State University’s Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy in conjunction with the Maricopa Country Adult Probation Department. The two groups were among only six of 56 applicants awarded the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation grant to fund the training.

More than 25 trainers from the 10 participating agencies attended the train-the-trainer sessions, held at the Downtown Justice Court Center in Phoenix, to learn how to train in trauma-informed practices. They included representatives from the university, courts, law enforcement and crisis intervention trainers, community corrections, jail and detention services, and behavioral health, including treatment and peer support services.

“The point of training is to change the way we talk about trauma and the way we think about trauma,” said Lisa Callahan, senior research associate at Policy Research Associates. Callahan led the training with Magdalena Morales-Aina, director of the West Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department.

The experience of trauma varies by the individual and their circumstances. But whatever form it takes, its effects are prevalent and persistent, potentially altering a person’s perceptions of themselves and the world, and affecting their ability to function. In some cases, the event – or the abuse, violence or history that coincides with it – can cause enough emotional pain or functional impairment to drive the person into isolation, self-harm, violent behavior or substance abuse.

People who have experienced trauma often find themselves interacting with law enforcement, particularly in communities that lack other facilities for behavior health or substance abuse intervention. Unfortunately, such encounters involve a number of experiences – handcuffing, confinement, unwanted touching and so forth – that can cause re-traumatization and, in some cases, spark a violent or easily misunderstood reaction.

Trauma-informed practices seek to interrupt this cycle by tailoring responses to the needs and sensitivities of people affected by trauma, whether that trauma is evident or not.

The effectiveness of this approach was reflected in one video testimonial by a man with schizophrenia, who described how a police officer’s respectful demeanor and refusal escalate the situation during a traffic stop helped him resist violent impulses while off his medications. The officer also made sure the man received appropriate treatment.

"It’s a reminder that you never know what happened to someone just yesterday, or what might trigger a reaction,” said Callahan.

Future trainings will be made available to personnel from other agencies in the jurisdiction who work with criminal-justice involved individuals, such as child welfare and homeless service providers. Presentations and workshops will also be held at conferences, such as the upcoming Arizona Problem Solving Courts Conference being held in Prescott April 25-27, to reach criminal justice and behavioral health professionals within and outside of Maricopa County.