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Oct 22, 2013

Building Community Trust

Police officers work hard to protect and serve their communities.  The badge and uniform adds a bitter sweet taste to the lifestyles of those who undertake the responsibility. Today police work requires risking life and being resilient against the scrutiny for that effort. Critics of law enforcement are not always privy to the psychological, emotional, and physical strains police officers undertake on a daily basis.  The great things police officers do are often overshadowed by the media's ability to mislead and sensationalize controversial events involving law enforcement encounters.  

 Throughout an experienced police officer's career, he or she develops a keen eye for suspicious activity.  On the one hand these activities are pre-defined by a police officer’s past experiences, training, and behaviors which provide the police officer with an intuitive advantage.  This advantage can reduce the police officer's reaction time to the uncertainty of imminent danger. It is a premonition that helps the police officer to react faster than the perpetrators intent to do harm. On the other hand, being intuitive is a flaw that can be fueled by irrational beliefs.  Irrational intuition could be driven by subconscious bias which heightens an officer’s vigilance and stress levels toward certain populations or situations.  These factors could formulate into preconceived notions that create the belief of a threat when none exists.  Exercising intuitiveness under these circumstances may lead to the miscalculation of a legitimate threat or result in an action that is later viewed as a poor decision. Based on training and experience, the police officer will utilize the most appropriate recourse for the rapidly evolving event.  Unfortunately, no matter how much training or planning police officers employ, the uncertainties of an unforeseeable event will seldom unfold according to plan.  Split seconds feel like an eternity during a high stress event between police officers and potential suspects yet the immediate results add to the historical overtones of injustices that compromise community trust. 

There has been much talk about what Basic Law Enforcement Training and the Department of Justice can do to help police officers improve the performance of their duties. This same discussion speaks to the restoration of faith in law enforcement agencies nationwide. 

During the hiring stages, most if not all law enforcement agencies require police officer candidates to take a psychological assessment. This assessment assesses the candidate’s psychological fitness for duty.  An assessment is purposeful but not enough because police officers will change overtime from the rigors of the job.  I strongly advocate that mandatory counseling be incorporated during a rookie police officer’s training and then routinely throughout their career.  I think mandatory counseling for officers will have a far reaching benefit. It will provide the community with an assurance that the Department of Justice and Training Standards are taking extra measures to ensure their police officers are physically and psychologically fit to enforce the law without irrational intuition. Many, if not all, agencies already offer counseling as a reactive approach to officer-involved shootings or other types of traumatic events involving police officers. Why not mandate counseling as a proactive initiative to address the psychological wellness of police officers?  The same line of thinking that mandated the Police Officer’s Physical Agility Test (POPAT) for physical health should be the same thinking that promotes counseling to address the mental health of the police officers. 

The main concern with counseling for police officers is confidentiality.  A police officer will have problems like any other person however the concern is whether or not he or she can trust the confidentiality of the therapeutic process.  If police officers are struggling with psychological problems, the fear is that they will be deemed unfit for duty should their administration discover the issues. Hence, many police officers suppress their burnout or sub-conscious issues which adversely impact their health and job related performance. To address this concern, police administrators should honor the ethical commitment Licensed Professional Counselors have to confidentiality.  In addition police officers need to be educated on how therapy works and how the helping relationship can improve their life.  I am confident that the therapeutic process afforded through counseling will aid in developing officers who are more conscious of themselves and the role they play in the community. As a former police officer transitioning into the counseling profession, I think this is a long term benefit that will improve community trust and maintain the psychological health of the police officer throughout his or her career.   
Kareem Puranda is a counselor-in-training at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is an advocate for the disadvantaged population and can be reached at

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