The case for trauma-informed supervision for police officers

24 June 2019

Camden CouncilMichael O’Connor and Dr Richard Grove

For those of us fortunate enough to receive high quality, attuned and reflective supervision, we are aware of the link between this and our ability to provide consistent, emotionally regulated interventions.

It enables us to hold genuine empathy, respect and unconditional positive regard for those we are trying to help. We sometimes refer to this as the ‘golden thread’ between supervision and practice.

  • What happens when we don’t have this space and time to ‘slow our thinking’?
  • How does this impact on our ability to cope with traumatic, high risk situations and the distress of other people?
  • What is the impact of routinely being exposed to vicarious trauma? And how does this impact on our ability to help?

Trauma is a well-researched topic in psychology, and there is consistent and clear evidence that when someone experiences it, there are natural psychological responses that occur to protect the individual and allow them to survive the experience – however, left unprocessed, these responses can become harmful and prevent individuals from being able to move on and manage. These responses are observed in individuals independent of whether the trauma happened to them, or whether they directly, or even indirectly, witnessed someone else’s traumatic experience.

Within our current work; in inspection, managing Youth Justice Services and adolescent mental health, we have seen the impact of this first hand, both on outcomes for children and families, but also staff wellbeing, recruitment and retention. On a macro-level and across the criminal justice system as a whole, we also see the impact of not having a regular ‘space to reflect’ on your day-to-day lived experience of dealing with trauma, risk and distress, on issues such as disproportionality – unconscious bias is a likely bi-product.

Kelly’s Constructs Theory cited in Working in Partnership: The Family Partnership Model is a helpful model to explore and challenge constructs and schema’s developed as a result of repeated exposure to a set of circumstances or behaviours which subsequently inform how we see the world, function and ‘survive’.

Questions that challenge constructs and unconscious biases such as ‘is it possible for a child to be a high public protection risk in one situation, and loveable, caring and innocent in another?’ and the use of multi-agency group reflection, which affords safeguarding partnerships the opportunity to safely challenge each other’s perspective and experience of a child or family, are particularly helpful.

With vulnerability also comes uncertainty and complexity

Police forces nationwide are facing challenges to carry out their responsibility to protect the public. Serious and acquisitive crime is ‘out’ and threat, harm, risk and vulnerability (a police term to describe safeguarding in its broadest sense) are ‘in’. This presents a significant challenge for police forces, with vulnerability requiring a much more complex and nuanced set of responses that require reflection, hypothesis and reflection on ‘self’ in policing.

We believe that health and social care professions have a responsibility to work with police forces to help and support them with this fundamental shift in demand and focus. Strategic partnerships and multi-agency responses have become increasing important to improving outcomes for children and young people at risk of offending, Criminal Exploitation and serious youth violence.

Police officers are often exposed to multiple traumatic experiences during their working day, and although attempts are made to support officers to access emotional or mental health support around this, the effects of the experiences are still present.

The pilot programme

As we move towards a more trauma-informed workforce across safeguarding partnerships in the UK, we must ensure that we are supporting our workers not only to understand trauma and it’s impacts, but to process how gaining this new information leaves them feeling – if you give someone information without allowing them space to make sense of it, you could cause more harm than good.

We therefore proposed trauma training to the police, with an additional confidential space for processing and reflecting on some of the subject matter covered during the training.

In order to present the idea to the police we took the following steps:

  • Sought to understand their ‘lens’ to helping
  • Showed empathy and regard to their lived experience of the same children and families
  • Validated the reality of their experiences and their emotional reactions to these experiences
  • Acknowledged Inspection Frameworks, Methodology and organisational pressures
  • Recognising the unique stresses and pressures this service is under – we are not telling them how to do their job
  • Highlighted how supervision has helped other professionals and de-mystifying the processes we were trying to introduce to them – adapting our language and approach to make the concept of supervision accessible
  • Focused on Relationship, relationship, relationship
  • Showing them that we believe it to be the shared responsibility of health and social care to support other support services – we notice them, we value them, we want to help

Co-production was also a central component to ensuring shared commitment and the early formation of a ‘safe’ group to explore and reflect on ‘self’. Promoting a shared ownership of the training provided us with the opportunity to navigate around the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – we aren’t coming here to do something ‘to’ you, or ‘for’ you, but ‘with’ you. If it’s not working, we all share responsibility, and if it is working, we all share the plaudits. We focused on the following concepts:

  • Equality – everyone has assets and something to offer.
  • Accessibility – we are building something together, so let’s agree on some shared language and understanding.
  • Reciprocity – ensuring that people receive something back for putting something in, and building on the desire to feel needed and valued.

A Model of Interaction and the ‘golden thread’ of supervision

Within the pilot, we have also focused on the impact of modelling our hopes of how we best work with children and young people who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect. We have attempted to apply some of the thinking outlined within the model of interaction, which is referenced with Davis and Day’s 2010 book, Working in Partnership: The Family Partnership Model. The model suggests some core values and skills within ‘helping’ and how modelling these with each other has a direct impact on interventions and outcomes for those we are trying to help.

This is also reflected in restorative approaches and to quote Mark Finnis, restorative practice expert: ‘If you want trust, you trust; if you want respect, you respect; if you want conflict, do neither.’

Outcomes and evaluation

The pilot intends to use the Professional Quality ProQOL Measure of Life (ProQOL) routine outcome measure, to measure impact of the sessions on officer wellbeing and job satisfaction.

We anticipate that there will be a chain reaction of positive outcomes that extend far beyond the experiences of the officers participating. We are introducing a new language and new set of ideas into the police, and we are working with them to assimilate this into their organisational culture.

The potential outcome is a shift in the way police officers are permitted to think about the young adults and children that they encounter, meaning that there will be more opportunities for empathising and understanding, leading to more therapeutic interventions.

About the authors

Michael O’Connor is a qualified Social Worker and currently manages Camden Youth Offending Service. On a national level, Michael has experience of inspection and improvement work, working with HMICFRS and leading inspection work within the National Child Protection and Joint Targeted Area Inspections. Michael is currently focusing his work to develop restorative and problem solving approaches to address issues such as child criminal exploitation, serious youth violence and gang related offending and harm. 

Dr Richard Grove is a Clinical Psychologist who currently works for Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust leading Project 10/10, a community project working with young people affected by gang involvement to help them with under-identified mental health needs and support them to take more positive directions in their lives and reconnect positively with their communities.

Related resources

Working in Partnership: The Family Partnership Model 

Related Research in Practice resources

Developing and leading trauma-informed practice: Leaders' Breifing

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