The First Responders of Trauma

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During his 23 years serving as a police officer, Mike Hatch had become acutely aware of the impact of trauma. While on the force, he didn’t always have the language to identify it, but he could feel its reverberations in almost every encounter he had. Trauma was the low hum in the living room he entered for a domestic disturbance call. It was the anger-shaped shadow cast on the pavement when he approached a suspect’s car. It was the intricate webs creeping into his own vision as he drove home to his family after responding to an especially troubling incident.

Even after retiring as a lieutenant in 2016, Hatch couldn’t stop thinking about the effects of trauma and how it impacts law enforcement’s interactions with the people they pledge to protect and serve. So Mike did what most retirees would consider blasphemous: he decided to go back to work. This time, his focus would be on mental health. He wanted to spend his time working for community-based programs, using his experience to train police officers (as well as other professionals) on mental health and de-escalation techniques. In the second act of his career, Hatch became the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Coordinator and later transitioned into the Director of Crisis Services for the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier (MHAST). For context, the CIT is an initiative that brings law enforcement and the mental health system together to find ways to “transform the crisis response system.” The CIT has a central goal of developing programs to improve outcomes for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

In these roles, Hatch led the crisis intervention training for local police departments and helped create a co-response model that centered on a partnership between clinicians and officers. As part of this response model, which is the one they still use today, MHAST clinicians respond to crisis calls alongside police officers, carrying police radios and even wearing bullet-proof vests. The goal of this model is to allow clinicians to respond to incidents where an individual may be experiencing a mental health crisis. As part of this work, Hatch also helped develop the 911 Distressed Caller Diversion Program–an initiative funded by Care Compass Network (CCN) that trains dispatchers to divert low-risk 911 calls so people experiencing a mental health crisis can be connected with a social worker or licensed counselor instead of an emergency police response.

After doing this work for over four years, Hatch was approached by the CCN Regional Trauma-Informed Care Network (RTIC) team in 2021 with a tall order: to train Broome County’s local law enforcement on trauma-informed policing. Under this model, which has gained national momentum as a result of calls for police reform, officers are taught to recognize trauma, understand its impact, and then attempt to de-escalate situations based on that knowledge.

Eager to help CCN with their mission, Hatch proposed they use the annual law enforcement in-service training as a vehicle for getting this information in front of the officers. Teaching officers about trauma seemed like a natural progression to Hatch and he considered it “an opportunity to integrate a topic into the in-service training that is cohesive when talking about mental health.”

Hatch worked with CCN’s Regional Trauma-Informed Care Network (RTIC) to adapt their trauma-informed care toolkit into a two-hour training for the Broome County police force. As they finished developing their curriculum, Hatch knew the perfect person to lead the training: Karen Roseman, a professional development specialist for the Southern Tier Independence Center. Roseman also serves on CCN’s RTIC and has been studying/training others on trauma-informed care for over five years now.

Hatch classifies Roseman as “a very high-level instructor” and says he knew having her lead the training was the right fit. “During these trainings, it’s important to have buy-in from the officers. Karen was the best person based on her past experiences and her abilities to really jump right into that role as a trauma-trainer.”

Part of what made Roseman an ideal candidate was that she had already been an in-service instructor in 2020 when she led a session on Autism awareness. During that in-service, Roseman noticed law enforcement was offered only a short session on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and saw the importance of doing a more extensive training on trauma. She points out the timeliness and relevance of this training in 2021, noting that the pandemic is “a collective trauma for the entire country.”

Hatch also tapped Alex Legos-Williams, the current CIT Coordinator, to co-present with Roseman. “They have to have somebody who’s walked in their shoes–or is still walking in their shoes–in order to trust, engage, and interact throughout the training,” Hatch says of the officers. And Legos-Williams was just the person to do that.

Roseman and Legos-Williams collaborated over the next seven weeks, training 156 officers as they each rotated through their day of in-service training. During the session, Roseman offered the background and theory behind a trauma-informed approach and Legos-Williams provided the practical strategies of how this would be implemented on the job.

Their training focused on de-escalation techniques and skills for interacting with people who have experienced trauma. Hatch says one of his goals was for the officers to learn to be more transparent in explaining next steps without compromising the safety of anyone involved. “Part of the trauma-informed training is that you can assume that this person you’re interacting with in a law-enforcement capacity has trauma in their past,” Hatch says. With that understanding, the goal of the training was to “increase the understanding of what trauma is, create an awareness of the impact of trauma, and then give the officers some lessons about what a trauma-informed response might look like.”

Before the in-service, no one was sure how the training would be received, as police reform can sometimes be met with pushback. However, the officers’ feedback was overwhelmingly positive. In a post-training survey, 95% of the participants stated they were satisfied with the training, and 88% agreed or strongly agreed that it helped them professionally. In their surveys, the officers listed an increased understanding of skills such as how to effectively take complaints, how to approach situations with more empathy, how to use trauma-informed language, and how to practice self-care when they’ve experienced their own trauma.

This last part was especially important to Hatch. He wanted the officers to understand that it’s not just about understanding the trauma of the people in the community–it’s about recognizing their own trauma as well.  “If I know these things affected me this way, I’m not alone. I just felt that it was time to start having conversations, not only about what it really means to have a trauma-informed response, but also to look inside yourselves as police officers and have a better understanding of how the traumatic things you see can affect you and change your behaviors, views, and outlooks.”

Since the in-service session, Legos-Williams says he’s noticed changes in his colleagues, especially in some of the newer officers. There’s a difference in how they speak to people and the patience they show, particularly for those experiencing a mental health crisis. Legos-Williams has even changed some of his own tactics as a result of the training, taking more time to talk with people to look for “speed bumps or setbacks to work through with them, hopefully leading to a better outcome.” As the CIT Coordinator, Legos-Williams will continue training officers on mental health issues. In this role, he also serves as a liaison between law enforcement and MHAST’s mobile crisis team–an program funded by CCN that offers daily mental health crisis intervention and bridges the gap between law enforcement and mental health professionals in Broome County. CCN funds a similar program in Tompkins County that offers 24/7 mental health assessment and treatment, often at little or no cost to the patient.

As for Hatch, he is proud of the training models he has helped create with MHAST and CCN’s RTIC. “After my first time going through the trauma-informed training myself, I thought, wow, there were so many situations where I would have benefited from knowing this and I would have reacted completely differently as an officer.” He is quick to note, though, that there is still a lot more work to be done. Hatch now serves as a Senior Project Associate and national trauma trainer for Policy Research Associates and has his own consulting company, Crisis Response Consulting, continuing the 911 diversion work he started at MHAST.

Trauma-informed policing is just one stop on what CCN’s RTIC believes to be a long and important road of educating professionals on trauma-informed practices. So far, their other initiatives have included training educators and medical professionals at Whitney Point Central School District, Children’s Home of Wyoming Conference Center, Mothers & Babies Perinatal Network, and Northeast Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Through these trainings, CCN’s RTIC hopes to address what the research has proven and what we know anecdotally: that empathy and compassion are the first responders of collective healing.

If you or your organization would like to learn more about trauma-informed care practices, please contact Bouakham Rosetti, Senior Project Manager at brosetti@carecompassnetwork.org.

Written by Sarah A. Bull

 

 
 
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