6/5/20, Rochester Police Officers at the Black Lives STILL Matter demonstration on West Main Street across from the Monroe County Office Building. [Photos: David Kramer, see articles on the demonstrations at end]
Speaking as a domestic violence counselor, the effects of stress on police officers is painfully obvious. As I have observed, in racially charged situations involving verbal if not violent confrontation, high levels of work-related stress can bring to the surface biases, prejudices, and even outright racist attitudes, creating a toxic recipe for abuse. Even when there is not overt violence or the expressed intent of violence, these factors can create interactions that leave my clients feeling unheard, disrespected, shamed, and even more traumatized.
For example, clients of color have told me how police will not respond if called to the same house more than once. Survivors of color have told me how they were denied crime reports or never told about victim’s assistance programs, and how they would never call the police even if they were under attack by their abuser. I have heard gut-wrenching stories about how the police made fun of them or accused them of lying. Some survivors have even been arrested due to an officer’s negligence or lack of training on how to identify a primary aggressor. So called mental hygiene arrests are common.
I have also worked with police officers who would give their life for a survivor. Some officers have even stepped up to take on the power establishment within their department. I have heard about officers addressing corruption, challenging discrimination, and even calling out the abusive behavior of their colleagues.What I am proposing is a radical call for self care within police departments, one that is federally subsidized and mandated by every county in America.
In the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for self is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
If the objective is to have police officers stop killing unarmed black citizens, self-care for police is not an act of self-indulgence. Nor is it a bleeding heart liberal response to crime and punishment. Self-care is an essential component of public safety. It’s about the police being more equipped to handle the pressures of the job.
No doubt, critics will argue that my proposal is another form of cultural sensitivity training. That’s not true. Mindfulness training, trauma-informed counseling, paid time off to unplug and reconnect with friends and family, and incentivization to pick up healthy leisure activities, is not the same as unpacking individual prejudice or noticing the signs of white privilege. Those skills are necessary but ultimately useless if the police officers are so run down by stress and lack of self-care that they do not have the mental and physical bandwidth to put them into practice.
Other critics will argue that what I am proposing does not deal with racism head-on and evades the discussion we all need to be having about structural forms of injustice in our society. If the system is racist, it does not matter if police officers are in a good head space or not.
I hear and respect that type of criticism. But the way to change systems is by changing minds and hearts. The best way to do that is by meeting a person’s psychological, physical, and spiritual needs. What I want to talk about is a reform that is robust, sustainable, and self-replicating. In other words, reform that actually works.
Are there racist cops? Absolutely. Is there structural injustice? No question. But there are far more cops who are over-stressed and just too high strung to be effective. They face everything from car accidents to gang warfare to child abuse to abused animals to drug addiction to homelessness to intimate partner abuse and much more.
Rather than redirect the conversation about police brutality and racial injustice, what I want to see is more accountability and better police officers. I want to see police officers who have the confidence and skills to handle any situation the right way. And I want the police to possess a level of self-awareness and emotional resilience that places them in a position to best serve the public.
I also get the call for an abolishment of law enforcement. I am not there but I get it. The status quo is broken. One way or another, change is coming.
SEE ALSO FROM DR. RITA GAITHER