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Trauma-resilience: Key finding #2 At-risk roles can be supported better to improve trauma resilience

Wellbeing research, news coverage and real-life experiences relayed through social media and within the police family over recent years have highlighted some roles in contemporary policing which are proving to be highly (and sometimes uniquely) demanding due to either the extent or context of the trauma exposure involved in fulfilling that role.

Examples have included: the extreme nature of viewing digital material of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) or beheadings footage in intelligence work; the need to maintain the utmost cognitive resilience for decision-making when in immediate danger of a catastrophic and unpredictable nature, such as in Counter Terrorism; and the auditory exposure to traumatic scenarios within which one has limited capacity to act or follow up, such as in Call Handling.

Given that these roles and the means by which trauma exposure is experienced is somewhat atypical, at Police Care UK we were acutely aware that the understanding about processing conventional (‘live’) traumatic incidents from neuropsychology may need to be refined or updated. Whilst there has been much behavioural research into how the brain processes generically traumatic incidents (typified by tools like the Life Events Checklist*) which any civilian may experience at some point in their life, there has been comparatively little on contemporary forms of trauma which may be unique to contemporary policing.

To better understand how the brain might naturally process (or indeed struggle processing) trauma exposure which is experienced digitally, audibly, or as a result of new forms of terrorism, the research team decide the best people to help: those who were already doing it. Over the 2-year project, Dr Jess interviewed, consulted, job-shadowed and conducted focus groups with officers, staff, senior leaders and psychologists supporting those working in a Paedophile Investigation Unit, a force control room, Counter-Terrorism and Family Liaison and a newly trained firearms unit.

This rich, qualitative data supported much of the concerns for wellbeing and psychological resilience already highlighted in academia, policing and the media. What is more, this new data started to uncover for the first time how officers and staff were adapting and coping with these roles. The findings revealed both negative coping mechanisms (from which future support may need to proactively deter individuals) and formidably positive examples of learned resilience through successful and conscious cognitive adaptation to the job. Insight into officer resilience was such that the research team recruited several participants from this stream of work to help with officer training for the feasibility study into trauma processing and also commandeered their support in delivering presentations at national conferences.

The conclusions of the research have been translated into operational and training guidance, including: Police Care UK guidance on dealing with extreme digital material, a Call Handling Training Manual for trauma resilience, Counter Terrorism Command Day and Chief Officer Training Sessions (with assistance designing a new wellbeing programme for the CT network within the Metropolitan Police) and recommendations for firearms resilience development.

Key insights included:

  • Extreme imagery becomes more manageable through practical adaptations in screen time, but it’s also the emotional labour of safeguarding offenders and notions of personal shame which renders the role so challenging
  • Firearms Officers’ use of spatial contextualisation during tactical operations help consolidate memories of traumatic incidents
  • Counter Terrorism support in Family Liaison roles can be a form of vicarious trauma processing which can be highly effective if uninterrupted
  • Focussed attention through specific roles in attending live incidents protects the brain from absorbing unnecessary traumatic material- but this protective effect can be damaged by re-exposure out of context, such as subsequent viewing of others’ Body Worn Video.
  • Call Handling resilience can come from the learned ability to let go of individual cases, and a greater appreciation of the processes and people involved in the wider, longer term handling of the case when the call is finished.

*Weathers et al. 2018 : see https://www.PTSD.va.gov


You can find out more about the trauma resilience in UK policing project here.


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