In the summer of 2020, many of us were reminded about the tense relationship between law enforcement and those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), particularly Black Americans. Just a few months prior to the breaking news of the murder of George Floyd, the killing of Breonna Taylor and several others whose deaths came to the national spotlight, I had successfully defended my dissertation that investigated undue police violence and counselor preparation. In the recently published article from my dissertation, “Undue police violence toward African Americans: An analysis of professional counselors’ training and perceptions” (October 2021 Journal of Counseling & Development), I defined undue police violence as the unwarranted and excessive uses of law enforcement officers’ (LEO) inherently violent force that results in physical, emotional and psychological harm to those who directly or vicariously experience it.
While I am hopeful that the spotlight on racism and undue police violence has conjured lasting motivation and action toward change among some counselors, I find myself skeptical about the enduring nature of many of the anti-racist commitments and promises for change from within our profession. My skepticism is rooted in the following.
- Undue police violence is not a new phenomenon. It has occurred throughout the history of the United States in the form of slave patrols, during the Civil Rights movement and in modern institutions of law enforcement (e.g., local, state, federal and immigration officers).
- Racism tends to be adapted and perpetuated even as the status quo is challenged. We see this in the social and political rhetoric of disinformation toward critical race theory and approaches that work against racism.
- Findings from my dissertation suggest that there is considerable room for growth in competence among professional counselors regarding undue police violence. For example, despite 68.2% of the 112 participants indicating having worked with clients who experienced undue police violence, only 17% had clinical training in identifying its impact and only 22.5% had training in advocating against it.
I am writing this article to build off findings from my study by offering reflective points and practical suggestions for professional counselors seeking to enhance their competence regarding the topic of undue police violence. These reflective points and practical suggestions are grounded in the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC) framework.
Reshaping our attitudes
According to the MSJCC, we can start developing and enhancing our competency to address undue police violence by examining and altering our current attitudes and beliefs regarding law enforcement, criminality and racially marginalized populations. Many of us may hold positive beliefs towards LEOs, informed by personal experiences, media representation and the attitudes of those we trust. For example, we may believe that LEOs promote security in society through their roles as first responders and that their use of force toward those deemed to be “bad people” and “criminals” is typically legitimate. Alternatively, when individuals such as Derek Chauvin are highlighted in national media for negligent and violent policing, we may be inclined to believe that the harm they have inflicted is the result of individual bad behavior. When we unquestioningly hold on to these adopted beliefs, we may be hindered from critically reflecting upon and acknowledging the ways in which law enforcement systems perpetuate harm.
A deconstruction of our belief systems entails a critical questioning and analysis of our current beliefs, the beliefs of others and how these beliefs have been shaped and developed within our social context. While LEOs can certainly function in ways that appear to promote security for some populations, we need to critically analyze instances when our attitudes and beliefs are not held up to be true. We might begin by asking ourselves: What are the purposes and functions of law enforcement? What has influenced my beliefs about LEOs across my life span? What differing beliefs do people hold toward LEOs and why? What impact have LEOs had on me and others in my community? Which members of my community have had experiences that diverge from my own regarding LEOs? What alternatives to policing exist to foster safety and security?
Deconstruction of our current beliefs is an essential step because many populations do not live in a world in which LEOs are experienced as safe, protective and trustworthy. In fact, my fellow Black Americans and I often feel that we are seen as threatening and criminalizable by LEOs. Native and Indigenous Americans may hold beliefs parallel to those of Black American experiences of LEOs. Women of color, particularly Black women, may experience LEOs as negligent and even perpetrators of sexual violence.
As we engage in a critical deconstruction of our beliefs and attitudes, it is important for us as counselors to empathize with the experiences of those who are marginalized in ways that often diverge from beliefs that center white, cisgender, male, abled, and middle and upper socioeconomic status experiences.
Deconstructing our current attitudes to develop more critical ones toward the relationship between marginalized groups and LEOs can be a difficult task in isolation. We often need something outside of our current awareness to challenge our current beliefs. Making use of existing expert knowledge can be a great tool to support an ongoing reshaping of our beliefs about LEOs. Rather than re-creating the wheel, counselors may benefit from drawing upon knowledge from abolitionist authors who have written extensively about law enforcement and the broader criminal justice system in the United States.
I make this recommendation because the counseling profession is often entangled with the criminal justice system. For example, we may be inclined to rely on law enforcement for emergencies or situations regarding a client’s imminent harm to others. Additionally, many counselors are referred to or work with clients who have direct and frequent contact with LEOs and the broader criminal justice system. Abolitionist writing on undue police violence can provide critical knowledge about the system of violent policing, its sociopolitical history and collective struggles against it. The following list of recently published books serves as a useful starting point for counselors:
- We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba
- Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie
- We Still Here: Pandemic, Policing, Protest and Possibility by Marc Lamont Hill
- Abolition for the People: The Movement for a Future Without Policing and Prisons edited by Colin Kaepernick
In addition to texts that focus on violent policing and abolition, readings specifically geared toward policing and race-based traumatic stress may be useful for counselors seeking to integrate this knowledge into their practice of counseling and advocacy. As a starting point, it is essential for counselors to know that LEOs’ use of force, whether a mere intimidating presence, physical force or use of a weapon, is inherently violent. This simply means that using force to enforce rules relies on behavior that is violent in any other context. As many of us are aware, violence often begets trauma.
When undue police violence intersects with racism, beliefs of racial inferiority are communicated from LEOs to those who are BIPOC. A message of racial inferiority is also communicated when institutions within the criminal justice system function to permit these practices without accountability. Moreover, these beliefs are further internalized when helping professionals negate, downplay or are simply oblivious to the impact of these experiences. BIPOC clients may exhibit the weight of racialized violence from LEOs in their developed worldview and identity, social and emotional processes, and neurological and behavioral functioning. The following books and articles may be helpful resources for advancing counselors’ knowledge about race-based trauma and violent policing:
- My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Manakem
- “The trauma lens of police violence against racial and ethnic minorities” by Thema Bryant-Davis and colleagues, Journal of Social Issues (December 2017)
- “The experiences of African American mothers raising sons in the context of #BlackLives Matter” by J. Richelle Joe and colleagues, The Professional Counselor (March 2019)
Developing skill and taking action
The purpose of the MSJCC is not to simply hoard knowledge and privately reshape our attitudes. Developing competency in multiculturalism and social justice requires us to export our cultivated knowledge and beliefs to support change as accomplices with the individuals, communities and populations that we serve. Without this accompliceship, we risk portraying ourselves and the broader counseling profession as performative and inauthentic.
In the remainder of this article, I will emphasize four specific areas where counselors can take action.
1) Assessing for undue police violence and its impact. One way for counselors to begin to address the potential traumatic impact of undue police violence is to conduct an ongoing assessment of such occurrences. According to national databases on police violence such as Mapping Police Violence (mappingpoliceviolence.org) and The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database, Black and Hispanic Americans and individuals who experience mental illness are overrepresented in fatal encounters with LEOs. While less often acknowledged, Native and Indigenous Americans also experience police violence at disproportionately higher rates than do their white counterparts.
Similarly, women of color and transgender and nonbinary people have experienced increased odds of violent encounters with LEOs that may overlap with sexual violence and aggression. Additionally, those who engage in resistance through protests have a heightened risk of experiencing undue police violence. Other populations, such as those who use substances, people without housing, domestic violence survivors and offenders, incarcerated individuals, and the loved ones of these individuals, also warrant the attention of counselors.
When we know or suspect that our clients have had encounters with LEOs, we need to provide space for clients to share what happened, how they were impacted and what they are doing to cope and heal.
2) Broaching. Broaching — the intentional invitation to discuss matters of race and culture in counseling — can be a useful tool to initiate conversation and meaning making around undue police violence. We broach by acknowledging the connections between our clients’ cultural identities, sociopolitical history and context, and their wellness. We then invite our clients to share and expand on their experiences in a safe relationship with us.
Care and attention must be given toward how we broach to avoid causing harm. We want to avoid robotic, scripted or inauthentic invitations. We also want to avoid tokenizing or burdening our clients by asking them to educate us on things that we can easily educate ourselves on. For example, it might not be wise to prompt a Black client out of the blue or simply because we are curious to tell us “what it is like to be a Black person in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.” While such a response acknowledges race, it misses out on communicating the ways in which we are attuned to our clients’ specific experience.
When teaching about crisis and trauma, I often encourage my students to explicitly share their observations of a client’s emotions, behaviors and thoughts as opposed to offering hollow or cliché comments to acknowledge evident distress and pain. When applied to broaching undue police violence and its impact, we want to let clients know that we can see the weight of their experiences, we understand and believe their experience to be valid, and we value their trust in us to share their narrative.
When we notice that encounters with LEOs, whether directly or vicariously experienced, impact our clients’ wellness, we might respond by first describing our observations and their relationship to culture and race. From there, we can invite clients to respond to the observations that we have brought forth. Throughout the client’s narrative, we want to communicate our attunement to their past and present emotional experiences through active listening techniques. I often encourage students to honor what is authentically present rather than attempting to “fix” clients or evoke the depths of their suffering. Lastly, we want to acknowledge our clients’ willingness to entrust us with their narrative, especially given the likelihood that their experiences have previously been met with skepticism, arguments or invalidation.
When broaching experiences of undue police violence, it is essential that we avoid interrogating, doubting or attempting to offer a “neutral” or “balanced” perspective for our clients. These behaviors are likely to be perceived as invalidating or antagonizing to clients. We also want to avoid placing our clients in stereotypical boxes. For example, not all Black people will experience undue police violence or, as a function of racial identity development, even share the same beliefs about LEOs.
These sorts of responses run the risk of creating relational ruptures, poking existing traumatic wounds and further stigmatizing clients’ experiences. Instead, we need to trust that our clients are knowledgeable and truthful in how they describe their experiences. Broaching is less about an extraction of information from our clients or investigating claims around their experiences. It is more about creating a relationship in which clients can share their racial and cultural experiences while being met with a nonjudgmental, attuned, affirming and validating presence from a professional. In doing so, we can cultivate spaces that help our clients cope with, integrate and heal from their distressing encounters with LEOs.
3) Coping and healing. After inviting experiences associated with undue police violence into the counseling room, we need to consider what coping and healing approaches look like. I have found the article “Toward a psychological framework of radical healing in communities of color” by Bryana French and colleagues in The Counseling Psychologist (January 2020) helpful in distinguishing between these two terms.
French and colleagues describe coping as surviving the experiences of injustice and oppression that inhibit optimal wellness. Coping entails supporting others in getting by and resuming functioning despite the distress from direct and vicarious exposure to undue police violence. Examples of coping might entail developing skill in affect regulation after exposure, altering one’s cognition to minimize distress associated with LEOs, enhancing connectedness to one’s social support systems or setting boundaries around social media usage following the viral sharing of a killing by an LEO.
While coping is essential, it is often more of a Band-Aid and does not address common roots of the distress from undue police violence: racism and systemically violent policing. French and colleagues’ article describes healing as fostering the collective critical consciousness and resistance against systemic suffering. On an individual level, healing might entail supporting a client’s growth in their critical consciousness around law enforcement and their advancement in racial identity development. On a collective level, healing may look like bringing community members together to foster hope and collective strength using support groups and healing circles. Healing may also include supporting a client’s engagement in various forms of resistance in their community to advocate for changes in laws, policies and norms that promote racist and violent policing practices.
As professional counselors, we can and should also be collaborating with our clients outside of the counseling room to enact tangible changes in communities where we operate. This might include active participation in organizing protests, demonstrations and calls for action as a complement to the work that we are traditionally trained to do.
4) Engaging in advocacy. It is essential that we address undue police violence in ways that do not solely reflect individual responsibility for experiencing or being impacted by police violence. Being engaged in our communities and society at large through advocacy is one way to achieve this. The following is a nonexhaustive list of actions that counselors can take and support alongside their clients and communities:
- Share credible educational resources on police violence.
- Contribute to public education efforts regarding the intersection of undue police violence and race-based traumatic stress.
- In moments of community unrest associated with undue police violence, organize with other counselors to open our doors for pro bono crisis counseling.
- Volunteer to support community efforts toward accountability of local law enforcement.
- Strategize a long-term plan of action with community leaders to minimize contact between LEOs and the public, particularly those who are BIPOC.
- Organize and advocate alongside clients to call for a divestment in law enforcement while simultaneously investing in public health and wellness initiatives that would foster community safety.
- Participate in public demonstrations against undue police violence. Specifically, counselors can collaborate with organizers to infuse culturally authentic wellness practices and strategies for maintaining safety.
- Conduct research on undue police violence, its impact and strategies toward change.
- Identify and contribute to resources for mutual aid to establish holistic care for clients in need.
- Integrate information about undue police violence into the classroom and supervision to better prepare counselors-in-training when working with vulnerable populations.
- Regarding substance use, advocate with local officials of the criminal justice system to allow for approaches that value harm reduction over punishment (e.g., incarceration) following relapse.
- In schools, advocate for the removal of school resource officers. When this is not achievable, advocate for a systemic restructuring of the roles of school resource officers to minimize contact with students, particularly those most vulnerable to undue police violence.
- Support or challenge candidates for local, state and national elected positions to make policy changes that minimize contact between LEOs and members of the public, especially those vulnerable to undue police violence.
Pursuing change in community
While we can build competence in isolation, it may be most effective and efficient to initiate this progress in community with others. When working alone, we may find ourselves avoiding blind spots or struggling to sustain our motivation to undergo change.
To tie the contents of this article together, I strongly encourage counselors to form action-focused reading groups around undue police violence. These groups should be different from traditional book clubs that function to gain new wisdom. Instead, these action-focused reading groups should be centered on making change and acting. To be effective in this goal, we may consider defining specific and actionable goals toward change before participating in these groups. Additionally, we can embed time for collective brainstorming, collaboration and reflection over action taken toward any identified goals.
Although the demands of the task are complex and politically charged, we have a responsibility as counselors to address undue police violence in support of the wellness of the client populations we serve. We should expect resistance, defensiveness and other forms of pushing back as we dig into making such important changes. Nevertheless, addressing and minimizing undue police violence is imperative. With the MSJCC as a guiding framework and with collective support from colleagues, counselors can make substantial gains in developing our competence before the next George Floyd-like tragedy inevitably occurs.
Darius Green is an adjunct professor and counselor educator. He earned his doctorate in counselor education from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @dariusagreen.
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