Cambridge Police Introduce First-of-Its-Kind Trauma Training for Officers

by Paul Ames

On 7 June 2016, the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Police Department conducted a law enforcement officer training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to help bridge the understanding gap between officers and the citizens they serve. The training included more than 20 Cambridge career police officers and more than 15 representatives from collaborating local service providers.

Paul Ames headshotEveryone in the room knew that policing is not an easy profession, but retired Lieutenant Richard Goerling of the Hillsboro, Oregon, Police Department reinforced that notion during the training with a profound statistic: the average police officer loses seven years of his or her life just by becoming an officer. That startling statistic set the stage for an intensive five-day Trauma Informed Law Enforcement Training Program that was spearheaded by retired Commissioner Robert Haas, current Commissioner Christopher Burke, Deputy Superintendent Paul Ames, Elizabeth Speakman (executive director of the Cambridge Domestic and Gender-Based Violence Prevention Initiative), Catherine Pemberton (social worker at the Cambridge Police Department), Jacquelyn Rose (director of outreach and programs at the Cambridge Police Department), and Alyssa Donovan (domestic violence liaison for the Cambridge Police Department).

Inward Reflection

As Commissioner Burke stated at the outset of the training, “An officer may experience more trauma in the course of an incident or several incidents than an individual may experience over the course of his or her lifetime. While it’s important to understand trauma as it relates to a victim, it’s just as important to help officers understand and manage their own trauma.”

Each of the five days started with a 5- to 20-minute mindfulness exercise. Admittedly, the practice was uncomfortable for many in the room, as some had yet to participate in a meditation session or “body scan,” a systematic concentration and awareness of parts of the body to further relaxation and awareness. However, as the days proceeded, and the participants became more comfortable with each other and the facilitators, anxieties subsided and officers benefitted from each practice.

Goerling stated, “Officers need to be equipped with skills in order to succeed as it relates to their well-being.” Later in the training, it was noted that when flying on an airplane, the flight attendant instructs passengers to put their oxygen masks on first, before helping others. This sentiment was echoed throughout the trauma training to ensure that the officers recognized that if they cannot or are not taking care of themselves, they will not be able to take care of others.

External Interaction

The second half of the training emphasized being healthy, compassionate, and understanding, while recognizing how everyone suffers trauma, albeit not necessarily in the same way. In addition to Goerling, the following nationally regarded subject matter experts led trauma-informed sessions:

  • Erin Miller, MPS, MDV, CTSS, CASAC-T, and Manager of the Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Program, Newton-Wellesley Hospital
  • Jim Hopper, Ph.D., Independent Consultant, Part-Time Instructor, Harvard Medical School
  • Donna Kelly, Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Prosecutor, Utah Prosecution Council
  • Justin Boardman, Detective, West Valley City Police Department (Utah)
  • Nicole Del Castillo, MD, MPH

Miller’s presentation highlighted the varying degrees of trauma (war, death, prolonged abuse, neglect), how people are affected, and how they process trauma in the short and long term. She noted that a single incident could be life altering, with adverse childhood experiences having life-long impacts. Miller also discussed the cumulative impact of trauma and the analogy of every traumatic experience being like a “brick” one carries, with only so many bricks people can carry at a time. Officers were encouraged to keep that perspective in mind to help provide a deeper sense of compassion for victims and themselves.

Hopper emphasized the science behind the brain – trauma and various triggers that prompt trauma following a sexual assault experience. Along with extensive research and data, he provided case studies and videos to broaden the officers’ perspectives. For example, he discussed the fear circuitries at work during a sexual assault and how disassociated a victim can become.

Kelly and Boardman complemented Hopper and shared how and why sexual assault cases are treated differently than any other crime: the national average of successfully prosecuted sexual assault cases is between 9 and 15 percent. From an investigative standpoint, Kelly and Boardman each highlighted that, with trauma, a victim will not necessarily recall events in order, but will remember the details most associated with survival – emotions or sensations. As a result, officers were encouraged to ask open-ended questions focusing on detail elements such as the type of furniture in a room, lighting, and sounds, as well as to provide a safe and comfortable environment to discuss non-leading questions.

Boardman likened an ideal interview process with a sexual assault victim to viewing a whiteboard full of sticky notes and a detective’s objective being to remove as many sticky notes as possible and then determine their possible sequences (“What else happened?” versus “What happened next?”). For the first time, many officers participated in various role-playing exercises in which they were the victims. According to one officer, “For the first time, I experienced the other side and noticed the officer’s body language and techniques. I also was more aware of how empathetic and judgmental they were (or weren’t).” Boardman concluded his session by saying, “Over time, these (sexual assault case) interviews are heavy and will wear on you. Self-care is absolutely critical.”

Nicole Del Castillo’s presentation centered on the trauma created by caregiver removal and realization of the impact this would have, particularly on children. First, police can modify procedures to make the arrest less traumatic. Second, police can adopt protocols to ensure that children are accounted for, left with competent caregivers and protected from harm. Third, police can collaborate with social workers and child advocates to connect children of arrested parents with the services they need.

At the conclusion of the training, officers and participants debriefed and acknowledged how this radical and cutting-edge training would help bring the department to a new area, particularly with trauma and resilience. One of the trainers stated, “You guys are extremely progressive . . . nobody has gotten to this point.” Overall, 21 officers graduated from this inaugural Trauma-Informed Training, which according to one, “took away my own skepticism, bias, and helped me be more compassionate.” Another said that, “If this can save one officer’s life, then this program will be a success.” It certainly helped build a broader foundation that the Cambridge Police Department will use going forward, roll out to all of its officers, and help evolve the culture into one that is even more compassionate and resilient.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Ames is the commanding officer of the Professional Standards Unit and Academy of the Cambridge Massachusetts Police Department. He is the control chief for a newly formed regional Critical Incident Stress Management Team involving eight local departments. From 2010 to May 2015, he commanded the Investigations Section, which includes Criminal Investigations, Family Justice Unit (domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex offender registry), Special Investigations Unit, Crime Scene Services (crime scene processing and fingerprint classification), Crime Analysis Unit, Electronic Crimes Task Force, and four detectives assigned to federal agency task forces. Additionally he was the commanding officer of a 20-member Special Response Team and 80-member Tactical Patrol Force. In this role, he planned and implemented active shooter drills in business/healthcare environments, participated in homeland security planning including Urban Shield Boston, dignitary visits, public events, and festivals from the 2004 Democratic National Convention to the July 4 activities, and assisted with security planning for business communities (including biotech firms) and universities in the City of Cambridge.