The City of Cambridge published a manual this month outlining its trauma-informed policing initiative and offering guidance on how to implement a similar program in municipalities around the country.
In 2015, the City of Cambridge collaborated with the Cambridge Police Department to create peer support resources and training programs that emphasize mindfulness practices, improve interviewing skills, and promote a better understanding of trauma.
Elizabeth M. Speakman, coordinator for the domestic and gender-based violence prevention initiative for the City of Cambridge, said the program first began when she and her team researched trauma-informed policing initiatives around the country. She said they found most departments focused on the impact of trauma either on the local community or within the police department, but none of them explored the intersection of the two.
“There weren't departments who were holding both of those — and the intersection of how being traumatized by your job impacts your ability to support trauma victims out in the community,” she said.
James W. Hopper, a teaching associate in psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and an instructor in the program, said his teaching often draws on neuroscience to demonstrate a connection between police officers’ own experiences and the experiences of survivors of sexual assault.
“I draw a lot of parallels between how the human brain responds to being attacked in a sexual way to how the human brain responds to being attacked on the battlefield or police officers involved in a shooting or a domestic violence call that spiraled out of control,” he said. “I'm just constantly saying like, ‘Hey, this is how evolution shaped our brains to respond to being attacked.’”
Katia Santiago-Taylor, the advocacy and legislative affairs manager for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, who participated in the program, said the training also focuses on helping officers understand how the past traumas of a survivor of sexual assault will influence their response to a present incident.
“Trauma is like a brick wall, and each incident is one brick, and my brick wall looks different than your brick wall,” she said. “Because my brick wall and your brick wall look different, my reaction is going to be very different than yours.”
“That's what we want officers to understand — that many survivors are responding to the brick wall, not to just the one incident,” she added.
The idea of outlining the program in a widely accessible guide stemmed from community interest, Speakman said.
“Once there's a good idea, and people learn about it, there's no hesitancy in terms of reaching out and trying to mimic that idea or apply it locally,” CPD spokesperson Jeremy Warnick added.
Alyssa Donovan, a victim witness advocate for the CPD, said the team often invites other police departments — including those from Boston, Somerville, Harvard, and MIT — and other organizations in an effort to achieve a more “well-rounded audience.”
HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano wrote in an emailed statement that several officers have attended training at the CPD and found it “meaningful.”
Hopper said one of the primary goals of implementing this trauma-informed approach anywhere is to “change the culture of policing.”
“It's to change the culture of policing, so it's more, quote, trauma informed,” he said. “That includes not just understanding the trauma of the people they work with — especially sexual assault victims who tend to be terribly misunderstood — but acknowledging and recognizing their own traumas and seeing the connections.”
“I think all of our systems have a lot of work to do around supporting survivors of sexual assault and that is one of the focuses of the training,” Speakman said. “From the experience of offering this training several times and seeing service providers, officers, detectives, command staff go through the training and learn about how trauma affects the brain is really transformative.”
—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.