The University at Buffalo School of Social Work’s Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care (ITTIC) has partnered with University Police (UP) on an education and training program that seeks to integrate trauma-informed practices into UP’s public service model.
“I’m thrilled with the opportunity to share our research and practices with community partners like University Police,” says Susan Green, a professor in UB’s School of Social Work and co-director of the ITTIC.
Trauma-informed care is a set of practices that function as a universal precaution. It recognizes trauma symptoms and engages individuals with an approach sensitive to the realities of the current moment and the unknown elements of a person’s history.
This broad vision considers a person’s past and present, including those experiences not always visible at the margins of life. With an appropriate trauma-informed response, officers can reduce the likelihood of re-traumatization in all of their interactions.
“Inappropriate responses to situations are often unintentional,” Green says. “But they’re always hurtful.”
Green says trauma is common and comes in many forms. What might otherwise be interpreted as uncooperative behavior could in fact be a symptom of previous trauma. ITTIC’s training can help officers make an informed distinction in those circumstances.
“It’s likely that we’ve all experienced some kind of adversity if not trauma in our lives and it’s beneficial to operate under this assumption if we want to avoid re-traumatizing individuals,” Green says. “All of us have a personal narrative. An awareness and understanding of a whole life’s picture encourages the possibility of establishing a neutral environment that flattens any power differential, and acknowledges the silent narratives.”
Rachel DiDomizio, UB’s assistant director for community and civic engagement, initially reached out to Green and Joshua Sticht, deputy chief of police, when the campus-working group, Freedom of Assembly Support Team, expressed an interest in how a trauma-informed approach could help UP prepare for supportive campus interactions.
“We’re really facing dual pandemics: COVID-19 and recent civil unrest,” Green says. “Most people are being activated in some way in terms of stress and adverse responses to situations. A trauma-informed approach helps in those areas where there has been a history of trauma, discrimination or institutional racism.”
Those possibilities interested Sticht.
He was familiar with a trauma-informed approach for law enforcement but hadn’t had any specific training.
“This has been an extraordinary year,” Sticht says. “We want to provide our officers with training that helps them interact with anyone on campus that may have experienced trauma, and the scope of what ITTIC provides has wide ranging applications.
“It’s another tool for our officers that supports our community focused mission.”
The collaboration began in mid-August when Thomas Gibbons, a New York State Police senior investigator, and Lt. David Mann of the Buffalo Police Department, both consultants to the ITTIC, delivered an initial presentation to six UP engagement officers who were already involved in orientation presentations, community engagement and other outreach programs, according to Sticht.
“These officers now understand how trauma affects a person and their ability to communicate with law enforcement,” Sticht says. “It helps reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding because we realize that something in a person’s past may be involuntarily influencing their interactions.”
Sticht says the trauma-informed training is critical, reducing the risk of re-traumatization and increasing the chance of de-escalation.
In addition to the engagement officers, both Sticht and Chief of Police Christopher Bartolomei have gone through the training. By January, additional modules will provide the same content to every member of the department, not just the officers, but dispatchers as well.
“There are so many stressors in the working environment, for officers, crime victims and witnesses, but we also have to remember that we serve the entire university community,” Sticht says. “What the public expects more than anything from a police agency is someone who arrives as a supportive problem solver.
“We’re fortunate to have an opportunity with the School of Social Work to accomplish that at UB.”