Mental health professionals weigh in on possible police reforms

     Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    In the wake of several police shootings and nationwide protests, efforts are under way to find ways of rebuilding trust between police officers and the communities they serve.

    Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is heading President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And some area behavioral health professionals are weighing in with their take on building better relationships.

    Stress, violence, and traumatic experiences are often part of life in urban communities where tensions between citizens and police officers tend to flare. Some mental health experts want officers to be more aware of the effects of trauma — and how it affects behavior.

    Psychiatrist Steven Berkowitz at the University of Pennsylvania is helping to develop a national police curriculum funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. The goal, he said, is to change officers’ outlooks.

    “Rather than approaching any situation with an individual as ‘What’s wrong with you,’ it’s ‘Tell me what happened, what’s your story — we care, we want to change things,'” he explained.

    Sustained stress and traumatic experiences can change people in a variety of ways, Berkowitz said. It can make them withdraw or become hypervigilant or even appear aggressive.

    Berkowitz, who heads the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery, previously developed a model for trauma-informed community policing in New Haven, Connecticut. There, police received training on the impact of sustained stress and traumatic experiences. Mental health professionals rode along with police officers and helped them reach out to families and communities after violent incidents.

    The program was successful, Berkowitz said, and was beginning to be replicated, but then funding dried up.

    The national police training curriculum he is now working on also addresses the mental health needs of officers — who often feel their lives are constantly in danger.

    “There is a lot about self care, how do you recognize when the facts and your perspective don’t line up — and that’s crucial,” he explained.

    At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, psychologist Gordon Moskowitz has studied prejudice and stereotyping for years. When under pressure, the human brain draws on mountains of data in a split second, he said. We’re not even aware of what’s happening and how our deeply hidden perceptions of others affect our reactions.

    For example, if someone mentions “shark,” Moskowitz said our brains first distinguish what meaning of the word shark is most appropriate in the situation. “If the context leads you to believe that it is the creature shark, we’ll call to mind several things really quickly. Your feelings about sharks, all these beliefs and knowledge that you have about the shark,” he said, all of it occurring in a split second.

    He is developing methods to help people understand and stop those unconscious processes.

    “Learning to take another person’s perspective, thinking about what it’s like to be in their shoes, and living in their world though their set of circumstances, which is a very effective technique for creating empathy, and changing the type of inferences that come to mind,” he explained.

    Moskowitz, who is doing research with health professionals on these unconscious thought processes, said they could work for police officers as well.

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