Could PTSD Be a Significant Cause in Police Shootings?

With the proliferation of cell-phones, live-streaming, dash-cameras, and body cameras, Americans have been inundated with footage of police incidents that often leave people wondering why and how something happened, who was to blame, and what can be done to fix the problem. Just last week, two incidents with police in St. Paul, Mn & Baton Rouge, La were taped/streamed live for the world to see and react upon. Don’t worry, I am not going to waste anymore cyberspace on another article trying to figure out who is more to blame for these incidents, however there is an angle on this topic of discussion that I have yet to hear of anyone deliberating, and I think it is one that is vital for us to consider.

During the many interviews and town hall debates that have been conducted over the past several months, the most poignant being the recent CNN Town Hall Debate, in which we heard both sides explain in brutal honesty the reality of what life is like policing and living in the inner cities of America.

Residents have explained in detail the horrific realities of living in a crime and poverty ridden environment; often describing the pain and fear they must cope with everyday over the possibility of losing a loved one to street crime. Residents described their personal history with the police and about how many young black men and women experience intense fear and anxiety when simply going out for a drive because of the fear that they might get pulled over solely because of the color of their skin. On the flip-side, we have police officers describing the pressure and angst that comes along with being responsible for these very same areas on a daily basis. They explained what it is like to patrol high crime areas where every traffic stop withholds an immense risk of encountering a criminal who is carrying a weapon and has nothing to lose, therefore distinctly increasing the the possibility of getting hurt…or worse.

Furthermore, the deteriorating relationships between police officers and the communities they patrol have added a whole new layer of fear to the equation. The police force knows how angry the citizens are with those among their line of work as a whole and they understand the possibility of those emotions spilling over into much more contemptuous interactions. In the same CNN Town Hall Debate, current and retired officers also described the difficulty of being forced to wear multiple hats within these communities. They expressed feelings and opinions of which expressed their belief that they are being asked and expected to do too much and yet provided little to no resources or training to handle it all. It was only last week that an article was published reporting that 49 Dallas police officers have quit due to many of these exact issues. One has to ask ourselves, what kinds of cumulative effects do all of these circumstances have on the police officers and the citizens in their communities? What effect does long-term and chronic stress, fear, anxiety, crime, and trauma have on the human brain and personality as a whole?

The human brain has the ability to adapt to its environment to ensure its survival, this concept is called plasticity. As we have seen in many soldiers, when the brain is exposed to long-term and chronic life-threatening stressor/s it begins to believe that this is how it is going to be forever, instead of continually relying on plasticity to recover. As a result, the brain decides to permanently change and adapt itself in order to equip the person with the capability to react to their environment in ways that will improve their probability of survival. A few of the changes might include, becoming more vigilant, reacting faster, less control of anger, improved attention and focus, etc. Because the brain has changed and adapted itself to these particular setting characteristics, once the person leaves this type of environment the brain is still operating under the impression that nothing has changed, which unfortunately causes all of the problems that we see when soldiers leave the battlefield and return  home. They struggle with anxiety, are quickly angered, hypervigilant, easily startled, insomnia, etc, and often are forced to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Do any of these sound familiar? Do we not hear the same exact things from police officers and citizens living in these communities? Think about that for a second… What downstream problems would that create of people within a community? How many times have we asked ourselves why the police officer was so quick to become agitated and use force? How many times have we asked why the citizen who was pulled over was so quick to become angry and confrontational? How many times have we asked why the officer shot somebody or why they used so much force to stop somebody who was not armed? How many times have we asked why the citizen who was shot didn’t just stop running or chose to make a particularly quick movement?

It is easy to just say that the officer was racist or the citizen was a criminal and “had it coming”. That seems to be the debate that we see playing out in the news currently anyways. And although there are cases where such claims might hold true, if we take the time to look at these incidents through the lens of each party whom are both living/working in a high crime and poverty stricken area, we might find that some of these victims/suspects are struggling with symptoms of PTSD. With considering this it is possible that we will have a different explanation for why these similar incidents are continually happening and perhaps even a new approach to dealing with them.

Of course there are a multitude of factors that work into the controversies among police and the communities, however what I am suggesting is that we consider a new perspective when discussing and dealing with this growing issue. It is important to explore this hypothesis because if these possibilities hold true then all the police training and socio-economic fixes we’re debating may never stand a chance of working if in fact the brains of the parties involved have changed and are the main cause of all the misperceptions, reactions, and emotions that perpetuate these types of incidents. We owe it to our police officers and citizens to figure this out and get them the help that they need,because our country cannot withstand much more of this perpetual violence among our very own citizens.