Thursday, January 6, 2022

Trauma and the Capitol Police

The Washington Post has a long article on the events of last January 6, focusing on the experience of Capitol Police officers caught up in the riot. We get very detailed descriptions of the incidents in which officers were killed or seriously wounded, along with a summary of their worries before the fact and the pleas that, in their telling, they made in the run-up for reinforcements, only to be ignored. The distinctively 21st-century theme is the long-term trauma suffered by the officers:

It is widely known that about 150 officers from the Capitol and Metropolitan Police Departments and local agencies were injured during the violence, more than 80 from the Capitol Police alone. Less understood is how long-lasting the damage, physical and psychological, to the Capitol Police force has been, damage that informs many officers’ outrage about what they perceive as a lack of accountability for those responsible. Interviews over many months with more than two dozen officers and their families (some of whom requested not to use their full names to speak frankly without permission from the department or to protect future employment prospects in the federal government), as well as a review of internal documents, congressional testimony and medical records, reveal a department that is still hobbled and in many ways dysfunctional. Among those still on the force and those who have left, many significant injuries and psychological disorders remain, including serious traumatic brain injuries and neurological impairment, orthopedic injuries requiring surgery and rehabilitation, post-traumatic stress disorder and heightened anxiety.

There are two things I wanted to mention here. The first is that trauma among the police is a widespread and growing theme in America. Suicide is the leading cause of death among active duty officers; the suicide rate among police officers is about three times the national average. Three officers who were at the Capitol on January 6 have taken their own lives.

The cause of this are of course complex, but I think one factor specific to police work is the sense among many officers that we have sent them out a long limb to do a dirty, dangerous job and are perfectly willing to saw off the branch behind them if they mess up. The bitterness coming from the Capitol Police has been directed almost entirely at their own bosses, who they feel ignored them and let them down, stranding them in a situation they could not control. When people do dangerous work that is supposed to benefit the public, it matters a great deal to them that the public vociferously supports what they do. They need backing. I think the crisis among the contemporary American police stems exactly from this: they can't handle, psychologically, doing their jobs and simultaneously feeling that the people despise them. The armchair liberal solution – well, if you want public support, stop shooting people, and start turning in your comrades who shot, beat, or frame people – is hard when cops feel that they are in a war, and only other cops understand and empathize with them.

The second is the overall theme we have been discussing here for years, the prominent place of trauma in our models of psychology. In much of what I read it seems like processing trauma is pretty much the only thing in psychology. And not to dismiss that, but it does feel strange to me to read a long, anniversary piece about a violent attempt to reverse a presidential election that focuses mainly on the trauma suffered by people caught up in the riot. All I can guess is that the Post's editors think focusing on personal trauma will get people to care about these events that political analysis will not.


David said...

It's easy to sneer at "stop shooting people, and start turning in your comrades who shot, beat, or frame people" as "the armchair liberal" solution. But that is the solution in line with justice, no? And isn't justice the goal?

Shadow said...

The capitol police work for brats. Half their bosses deny anything of import happened that day. And "federal workers are lazy and incompetent" is a favorite refrain of too many of their bosses. Their authority extends no further than the boundaries of the Capitol and national parks in D.C. They are park police. The sad reality is not even other police think they are real police. Putting your life on the line to protect people who think like that will gnaw away at their brain centers until all that's left is trauma. I don't see how their plight gets better. I wish them well, because capitol police do die sometimes doing their jobs. But I'm not sure comparing them to other police agencies is a good comparison. The daily grinds are too different.

David said...


Of course, when you say "half their bosses" deny what happened that day, and many harp on the laziness etc. of federal workers, you're basically talking about Republicans. Let's not be coy.

Shadow said...

I wasn't being coy. I thought it was obvious, especially about Jan 6. Republicans have been saying such things since the days of the Reagan, if not longer.

G. Verloren said...

Robert Peel invented modern policing, and he laid out fundamental principles for the task.


1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

2. To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

3. To recognize always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing cooperation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

4. To recognize always that the extent to which the cooperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

5. To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

8. To recognize always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

9. To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.


We absolutely do not uphold most of these principles in modern policing, and a massive part of that is this very mindset among the police that they are soldiers fighting a war.

They don't see themselves as members of the public, but as special messiah figures bearing terrible crosses which only they can understand, and which elevate them above (and isolate them from) the masses. They don't see their job as serving their fellow citizens (including innocent and guilty alike), but rather as waging war on "the enemy" in an unending (and indeed unwinnable) life or death conflict. They don't act like police - they act like a military occupation force.

I don't know whether it would be better to pursue a policy of major reform or to completely start over from scratch, but it's overwhelmingly clear to me that we urgently need to completely uproot the toxic principles of our extant militarized police force, and replace them with the original foundational principles that defined modern policing in the first place. We have lost the way, and need to get back on track.