Centering Trauma, Healing Communities

Members of EJUSA’s Collective Healing team, as well as the Baton Rouge Healing Coalition, join Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to share ideas on reimagining trauma-informed cities.

For generations, communities of color have experienced deep mistrust of police, resulting from years of institutional racism and violence. Only after the 2014 police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Ezell Ford, all within a month of each other, did discussions of police violence and accountability become a part of the larger national conscience.

Over the years, public attention to police violence and the associated lack of accountability has mounted, revealing both a dire need and ample opportunity for a new form of justice. In January 2018, the Federal Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) launched a three-year initiative to explore these needs and opportunities.

The initiative, formally called “Law Enforcement and the Communities they Serve: Supporting Collective Healing in the Wake of Harm,” is a federal collaboration between the OVC, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Department of Justice. IACP identified five cities to house the program: Baton Rouge, Houston, Minneapolis, Oakland, and Rapid City, South Dakota.

For the past year, EJUSA has partnered with activists, community-based organizations, institutional service providers, and law enforcement agencies in these cities to tackle a critical question: What do trauma-informed approaches to harm and violence look like? The work has gained a powerful momentum as the collective group addresses the prevalence and impact of police-community tensions and establishes new means of interaction and understanding.

In this role, EJUSA supports organizations that work with survivors of violence coping with trauma, while meeting with local police departments to build their understanding of trauma, the ways that communities have been harmed and traumatized at the hands of police, and the ways that law enforcement themselves have experienced and internalized the trauma involved in their jobs.

“The goal is to really help cities center trauma within all aspects of their work, and collectively create public healing strategies that acknowledge harm and foster healing on both sides” says Latrina Kelly-James, EJUSA’s director of training and capacity building.

“It broadens the definition of healing,” says Christine Henderson, EJUSA’s senior collective healing strategist. “It shows intersections between policing, community organizing, and victim service providers, and allows each to understand how trauma-informed strategies can be a foundation for so much justice work.”

While police-community relationships still have a way to go across all sites, some of the most pivotal changes within the initiative’s first year occurred in Baton Rouge. Like all of the cities selected for the project, Baton Rouge has been deeply affected by racism, poverty, state violence and significantly traumatic events — most notably the 2016 murder of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police, the killing of Baton Rouge police officers and a major flood; all of these occurring within weeks of each other.

As EJUSA’s Collective Healing team met with the Baton Rouge Police Department (BRPD) and local organizations to advocate for cultural shifts within the department, several grassroots groups came together to form the Baton Rouge Healing Coalition. This network of 15 like-minded organizations support one another to create strategies rooted in community healing, while receiving capacity-building support — in the form of fundraising, organizational support, marketing, and more — from EJUSA staff.

In August, this coordinated activism and community support yielded a historic public apology from BRPD Chief Murphy Paul, not only for Alton Sterling’s murder but for the toxic culture of policing that has haunted the city for generations. In this apology, Paul explicitly named the department’s commitment to healing from the trauma that police have experienced and created in the city.

Chief Paul’s apology was one of the most exciting highlights of this year but it was far from the only one. Several cities saw remarkable developments, including Rapid City. In a city known mostly as the site of Mount Rushmore and much less for its mistreatment of its sizeable Lakota Native American population, commitments by police illustrated transformations in law enforcement’s empathy to community trauma and healing that hadn’t been seen before.

Initial meetings with the community surrounded issues of disconnection from police, rampant violence, and corruption. Over the year, the Rapid City Police Department (RCPD) listened and devised a plan for proactively shifting their department culture. Presented over 300 PowerPoint slides, the plan described the history of the U.S. government’s genocide against Native American people, and how this violent legacy dictates the way that law enforcement engages with the community today.

Before presenting the plan externally, RCPD met with Lakota elders to ensure that the plan was acceptable. One elder was brought to tears, naming that this was the first time they’d felt hope that true change could take place.

The Collective Healing initiative will continue for an additional year. Given the progress and clarity that has come from this first year’s work, our team noted the continued need for deeper investment from police in order to achieve the initiative’s goal of transforming historically over-policed communities.

For EJUSA’s Senior Strategist, Will Simpson, intentionality and communicating how change is happening is key.

“We learned a lot this year,” he says. “We need to send the message that huge changes are possible, and that healing is happening. We need to show people that growth is happening on a daily basis.”

Exposing Trauma to Heal

Trauma to Trust participant speaking

Violence interventionist and Trauma to Trust participant Darren Miller (center) speaks about the impact of the program, and his experiences with law enforcement.

Over 500 police and community members have completed in EJUSA’s Trauma to Trust program. Click here to learn more and participate.

Summer sunlight poured through tall windows into the community room of a historic Newark building this past June. Long tables formed something like a horseshoe, with chairs lining the outer perimeter. A large projection screen sat at the end.

Men and women of all ages trickled into the room. Many of them peeled off hoodies, collared shirts, even a Yankees jersey to reveal the uniform of the Newark Police Department (NPD). Without a word of instruction, they filled all the seats on one half of the room. On the other side sat Newark community members, activists, and a few newcomers to the city.

Day one of Trauma to Trust, a police and community training program, was about to begin. For the next 16 hours, those in the room would open up about the trauma they had experienced through interactions with the police, the stress of being “on the job,” the ways that relationships could be made strong, and what kind of changes could create community safety without leading to more arrests.

Trauma to Trust is about creating empathy and understanding around trauma—the kind that occurs every day as well as the historical trauma that continues to affect all generations of people of color. This sharing of experience is hard work and requires vulnerability. So the way the police took over one side of the room, creating a dividing line between them and the community was not ideal. But it’s also not unexpected.

“Trauma to Trust is engineered to challenge bias,” said Monique Swift, EJUSA’s lead facilitator in the June sessions. “Police are biased against the community, and the community is biased against police. More often than not, trauma is the foundation of those biases. That’s why Trauma to Trust is so effective. We expose the trauma and explore it. We’ve seen over and again that the exposure leads to the opportunity to heal and ultimately transform the relationship.”

Trauma has not traditionally been a part of police training anywhere, at any time, in the U.S. But the NPD has been operating under a consent decree, an agreement reached in 2016 between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice in response to allegations of “unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, use of excessive force and theft by officers” against people of color. The Trauma to Trust trainings are one approach that the NPD and community have identified and implemented to address the circumstances which led to the consent decree.

Darren Miller has lived most of his life in Newark. Once formerly incarcerated, he is today a violence intervention worker for the Newark Community Street Team (NCST), where he mentors about 15 young people. “This is my calling,” he said, after the trainings.

The June sessions were his second round of Trauma to Trust. “For me this was a healing process,” said Darren, who explained that he’d been beaten by police when he was arrested and again while in prison by corrections officers. “I wanted to be able to be a voice, as a person who has been locked up, who has dealt with trauma. And I wanted to be a healing agent where we would work together.”

Edith Muhammad brought a unique experience to the trainings. Her father was murdered when she was a child. A couple years after graduating from college, she spent seven years in the NPD, ultimately leaving to take care of her son. “As an outsider looking in, I see the NPD having these conversations as almost revolutionary, to talk about trauma and public trauma,” said Edith, who just took a job with NCST working in its hospital-based violence intervention program. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of crime. We have to make communities safe without destroying them.”

Edith isn’t the only participant to describe what’s happening in these rooms as revolutionary or similar. Each training session brings up new questions that are creating a shift in perspective from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” It’s in that shift that the possibility for empathy and understanding lives. Only when we achieve that can we start building a shared vision for what public safety—that embraces racial equity and violence prevention—can look like.

Former Newark Police Officer and Trauma to Trust participant Edith Muhammad.

The program is drawing national notice. A team of community members from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, joined the June trainings because they’re doing their own work on police and community relations. Nicole Scott founded the BRidge Agency INC nearly three years ago. She, like everyone in the Baton Rouge group, paid her own way to come to these trainings.

“I was expecting to attend a seminar where we were taught,” said Nicole. “What we got was far more enriching. We saw law enforcement with community, taking time to talk with each other, learning about each other’s sides. I wished some of our officers were in that room so that they could see that mutual dialogue can take place and be respected.” She paused. “That was life changing.”

And that’s the point of working to reduce violence and also change the way we respond to it. There’s no doubt this work can save lives. But it can change many more lives by relieving many communities of constant violence.

As the sessions wrapped up, and participants shared their takeaways, Edith talked about what that means, for her and for all of us. While there many things that exist to give us the impression that we’re safe—an alarm system, a weapon, and, yes, over-policing—what we really need is something much simpler. “I want to be safe because I live in a safe place.”

Click here for more information on EJUSA’s Trauma to Trust program. To participate in this fall’s upcoming training, sign up here.