A better way to curb police brutality

A better way to curb police brutality
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We just need to get rid of the bad cops that spoil the whole bunch. But if only the underlying causes of police brutality were this simple. Pervasive enduring racism is one revolting key factor as to why excessive violence falls on communities of color. Yet if we want to be effective in reforming the police and improving community relations, we will have to address a broader range of the root causes of excessive use of force.

Take the police officer who was referred to a police psychologist after the department had received complaints of his aggression in encounters with citizens. In therapy sessions, the psychologist learned that the officer was suffering from exposure to a horrific trauma which he experienced on the job. When pulling over a motorist for speeding, he would flash back to the day he had to pick up a car seat from the pavement with a dead infant still strapped in, the victim of an accident caused by a speeder.

For the average person to have any sudden rush of unexplained anger or fear, it is disconcerting and troubling enough for those around. But when this happens to a police officer, who is often in the midst of some highly charged situations and carries a full array of weapons that include lethal force, the situation becomes more alarming and dangerous.


During their careers, police officers are regularly at risk for exposure to psychological trauma that builds cumulatively and has neurobiological effects. They are constantly making life or death decisions on the spot, when walking up to a car with a potentially armed occupant, entering a home when domestic violence has been reported, deciding whether to continue with a high speed chase, and many other situations.

Scientific research has given us new insight into how trauma affects the brain, shedding light on how cumulative trauma could be an underlying cause or contributing factor to all of the excessive use of force by police officers that we have seen. They are expected to serve in a wide range of roles, such as social workers to diffuse any domestic disputes, substance abuse treatment counselors to deal with overdose victims, child services workers to remove kids from neglectful homes, and more, in addition to serving as guardians of safety and peace in the community.

Like with public school teachers, we demand more from police officers in their roles without acknowledging the further stress this places on them, both psychological and physical, and without the resources or programs for their success and health in fulfilling these duties. For many of us who are unfortunate enough to experience trauma, it is so obvious and out of the ordinary that it draws immediate and concerned attention. This is not the case, however, for police officers, who are expected to face adversity stoically and may even feel stigmatized in seeking treatment.

Researchers for Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas at Austin are currently using gold standard methods to evaluate the effectiveness of an experimental program designed to provide treatment to police officers struggling with frequent exposure to trauma or vicarious trauma. Officers are offered the new opportunity to receive eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy, which is innovative treatment based on advanced understandings on neurobiological functioning of the brain.

Eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy has the potential to excavate and help officers process the searing pain of traumas contained in the brain and prevent them from coming to peace and resolution of the events. After he had received eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy, all those close to or interacting with the officer in the case above, including his wife, children, supervisor, and the public, viewed a dramatic improvement with his demeanor and encounters with others.


Police brutality is a scourge of the profession, but it also reflects a blight of our society and a failure to treat human suffering. Exposure to trauma has been ignored in a range of roles in which we have high expectations for near perfection in decision making. Look at the child services worker investigating child abuse, the emergency call taker attempting to help a desperate person in administering life saving aid, the health coordinator hearing suicide ideation in an elementary student, and more.

We need to treat, instead of only penalize, the malady. Thus, in addition to the stirring conversations we have about endemic racism, let us also have real discussions about how we can tackle the other root causes of police brutality and strive to reduce human suffering more broadly.

Carolyn Heinrich is the Patricia and Rodes Hart professor of public policy and education who teaches at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.