Campus News

Police training focuses on trauma-informed practices

Police lights at night.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published September 24, 2020

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headshot of Susan green.
“Inappropriate responses to situations are often unintentional. But they’re always hurtful. ”
Susan Green, professor of social work and co-director
Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care

The 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 the 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,” says Green. “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,” says Green. “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.”

Instructors of the trauma-informed care education and training program developed in partnership between the University Police and the School of Social Work.

Thomas Gibbons (right), a New York State Police senior investigator, and Lt. David Mann of the Buffalo Police Department, both consultants to the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care, lead a training session on Aug. 20 for six University Police engagement officers.

Rachel DiDomizio, assistant director for community and civic engagement in Student 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,” says Green. “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,” he 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.”

Photographed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, University Police officers Sweeney (left) and Sharod.

University Police Officers Shannon Sweeney (left) and Kevin Sherod, pictured here at the March 14, 2019, SUNY’s Got Your Back event at UB, are among the six UB engagement officers who took part in the trauma-focused training at UB in August. Others were Officers Ali Ince and Dale Zulawski, and Lieutenants Stacy Tuberdyke and Scott McMillan.

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, Sticht explains.

“These officers now understand how trauma affects a person and their ability to communicate with law enforcement,” he 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,” says Sticht. “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.”