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Trauma-Informed Practices

Why include trauma-informed care in public safety?

Traumatic events weigh heavily on individuals, families, and communities. While many individuals may not experience long-term effects from a traumatic experience, trauma has the potential to impair healthy development and put individuals at higher risk for chronic physical and behavioral health disorders (SAMHSA, 2014).

But first responders can play a key role in the trauma cycle. When individuals are connected and provided services and supports, they become better equipped to recover from traumatic experiences. First responders are often the first and only point of contact with individuals experiencing trauma, placing them in a unique position to assist individuals to begin to recover from traumatic experiences. Assisting individuals recover from (or cope with) their trauma experiences promises benefits for both the individual experiencing trauma and the community at large.

What can public safety agencies do?

Public Safety agencies can help individuals who have experienced trauma by making their organizations trauma-informed. This can be accomplished by building the principles of trauma-informed care into agency culture, policies, and practices.

In accordance with HB 2575, the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) is offering the following recommendations for agencies to improve interactions with individuals – both in the community and in their own organizations - who have experienced trauma. These best practices are based on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) concept of trauma and principles for a trauma-informed approach.

At DPSST, similar concepts to these can be found woven throughout our basic academy curriculums, as well as specific courses and trainings such as ADEPT and Procedural Justice. For more information about upcoming trainings, please review the DPSST catalog.

The four assumptions that guide SAMHSA's trauma-informed principles


Agencies and first responders need to work with the realization that trauma is a pervasive issue affecting individuals, communities, and organizations.  


Organizations need to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma to aid in the treatment and recovery process. 


Given the prevalence of individuals and groups experiencing trauma, an agency should respond by training all members within the organization on the best practices and policies to aid individuals who have experienced trauma.

Resist Retraumatization

Following best practices will mitigate re-traumatization by identifying and avoiding environments and behaviors that may be triggering for these individuals.

SAMHSA's Six Principles

Trauma-informed organizations can enhance the physical and emotional safety needs of individuals. Victims of crime can continue to experience symptoms following a traumatic experience. For example, symptoms can include:

  • hypervigilance
  • intense fear of the perpetrator
  • fears of revictimization
  • anxiety related to disclosing victimization and/or the surrounding circumstances

Agencies who respond to those who experience trauma, must develop competencies to identify these symptoms, so that they are able to develop comprehensive safety plans and activate trauma-informed services such as crime victim advocates. Such training aims to:

  • screen and assess ongoing safety issues (“is there a firearm in the home?")
  • connect individuals and others to resources
  • inform and help individuals and their families safeguard their rights
  • help individuals if contacted by a suspect or another third party (protective order enforcement)

Agencies that are trauma-informed should also address the emotional safety needs of individuals. First responders can do this by being educated on how to recognize a traumatic response, and how to respond accordingly to that individual, leading to a better possible outcome.

Agencies should ensure that any fears related to disclosure of victimization and/or the victim's activities prior to the victimization are minimized or eliminated, which is relevant for individuals involved in sex work, illegal drug distribution, vulnerable populations, or for individuals with undocumented immigration status.

Agencies should also tend to the emotional safety needs of their own employees. First responders often bear witness to human suffering; consistently seeing and hearing such suffering can be deeply impactful. Agencies should have programs to address burnout, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue (stress). For more information about being trauma-informed in the workplace, read A Trauma-informed Workforce: An Introduction to Workforce Wellness​ from Trauma Informed Oregon.​

Displaying trustworthiness and transparency is important for agencies because individuals experiencing trauma are often victimized from known perpetrators, making the external world feel unsafe. To increase the individual's sense of safety and control, building trust through clear and explicit expectations, processes, and policies is recommended. During interactions:

  • DO be transparent by explaining why certain events are happening or are going to happen
  • DO speak slowly when explaining complex processes or policies
  • DO clarify the individual's understanding throughout the conversation
  • DO NOT overpromise, or be unrealistic about outcomes

It is imperative that individuals feel safe and supported when sharing their experience. Feeling unsafe and the inability to trust others is worsened when individuals are not viewed as not credible.

First responders should understand that individuals may display a wide variety of emotional responses that may appear out of the ordinary, or inappropriate given the situation. For example, laughing or displaying a lack of an emotional response. These types of responses are the result of how trauma affects memory and information processing. Additionally, individuals may not remember details or may recall events out of sequence. These reactions are normal responses to trauma and should not diminish the victim's credibility. ​

SAMHSA defines a peer as someone who has either experienced trauma or has been heavily involved in caring for an individual through the recovery process of trauma. In other words, it is a person who has faced a similar circumstance or experience. This idea is predicated on the reality that another survivor is better able to have knowledge of what the person experiencing trauma is going through.

Individuals who experience trauma may react or cope in diverse ways. They may feel isolated and withdraw, feel shame or guilt, or even blame themselves for their trauma experience. Peer support is an important aspect of being trauma-informed. Helping individuals build connections with other survivors can help mitigate negative these thought patterns. If possible, agencies should partner with other agencies and mental health professionals to facilitate these peer support connections.

When working with someone who has experienced trauma, it is important to show empathy, compassion, and flexibility. There should not be a power differential between the supporter and supported, and the support should be built on shared experience. The support should be based on a mutual relationship and allow for the individual to name and guide his or her own experience as each person's journey is different. Trauma is a common experience, so it is best practice for first responders to assume that those they interact with have experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lives and link individuals who need help coping with trauma to services. ​

Experiencing interpersonal trauma can place people in positions of submission and coercion. Agencies can enhance collaboration by emphasizing shared decision-making when planning with individuals or other individuals. First responders should try to reduce position imbalances with victims. When possible, power should be shared, and no one should be in charge. The relationship should be reciprocal. Using first names and avoiding formal titles when speaking with individuals is recommended. First responders should encourage individuals to question and challenge the dominate narratives surrounding victimization. Individuals should feel like they are engaged in a dialogue with first responders—not that they are the passive recipients of official knowledge.

First responders should be trained and understand the trauma-informed script​. Key parts of the script include:

  • validating and normalizing their traumatic experience
  • being clear and direct about next steps
  • providing the “why" regarding official processes
  • providing options and choice for victims​
For more information on trauma-informed scripts read The Anatomy of a Trauma-Informed Script​ from Trauma Informed Oregon​.

A key component of being trauma-informed is empowering individuals to make their own decisions and goals to support their own healing process. Some individuals who have experienced trauma may have feelings of low self-worth, a lack of value as a person, a lack of control over their own lives, or even feel they are undeserving of help. They should not be subjected to coercive treatment but should be provided a safe environment to build on their own strengths and heal in their own way.

For individuals who are unsure how to proceed, treatment and recovery options should be provided so that they may choose what options they prefer. It is important that these individuals be engaged in their own care and recovery. When interacting with people who have experienced trauma, it is important to listen to what they are saying and empower them to choose how they would like to proceed. Their treatment should help build resiliency and self-advocacy.

Much like the concept of procedural justice, first responders can help mitigate the impact of trauma by communicating what will happen to individuals, allow them to share their feelings, listen to them, and let them take control of their own lives and decision-making processes. Agencies should also be careful about the language they use, for example it is best practice to ask the individual “what happened" to them, as opposed to “what is wrong with" them. This helps facilitate trust, builds rapport, and helps individuals who have experienced trauma have more agency in their recovery process.

Just as in collaboration and mutuality, effective interviewing is an important skill to help promote empowerment and voice. Training first responders in how to recognize and speak with someone who has experienced trauma will help obtain cooperation and improve the quality of information received. This will better guide first responders in providing the services the individual needs.

To be effective interviewers, first responders need to increase the individual's feelings of comfort and safety. The setting and mechanics of trauma-informed interviewing include:

  • If possible, conduct interviews in a private setting
  • allow individuals to use their own words
  • interact with them in a calm manner
  • if possible, provide individuals a choice in who they would like to speak with (i.e., a female officer, BIPOC officer, etc.)
  • allow the individual to take breaks and check in with how they are feeling
  • let the individual know it is okay if they do not know the answer to something they have been asked.

These strategies not only foster a safe space for individuals but allows them to feel they are more in control of their lives at that moment.​

The final guideline for being trauma-informed is to take into consideration stereotypes, biases, and historical traumas that individuals may have been subjected to and guide them to services that can cater to those needs. It is important for first responders to create an inclusive environment that acknowledges, honors, and respects individuals of all backgrounds.

Cultural and historical trauma has the potential to run deep with Oregon's history of discriminatory policies and laws. Oregon became a state in 1859 and was the only state to be admitted to the US with a black exclusionary law in its state constitution. This law prohibited African Americans from owning property and/or making contracts, and it did not get removed from the constitution until 1926. As such, Oregon has a disproportionately small population of African Americans compared to other parts of the country.

Against this backdrop of multigenerational discrimination and mistreatment, the African American community has developed a cultural mistrust of criminal justice systems. Awareness of these cultural issues is a key component of being trauma-informed. It is important to recognize that culture shapes someone's identity and how he or she moves through life. For example, gender and/or racial and ethnic bias can impact how safe an individual feels, how much trust that person has toward authority, and their willingness to seek help.

First responders should have a basic understanding of trauma, its symptoms, as well as how traumatic experiences – including those involving an entire group or community - might manifest in individuals of different genders and cultural backgrounds. It is also important to be aware that people from diverse backgrounds have different exposures to traumas.

For example, women are at a greater risk of experiencing interpersonal violence than men. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSM) found that 93% of girls in the Oregon juvenile justice system had experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse (see also, Saar et al., 2015). The rates of interpersonal violence are exponentially higher for minority and impoverished women (Hart & Klein, 2013​).

To be trauma-informed, agencies should continue to have implicit bias trainings and normalize conversations about race and gender issues. Agencies and individual first responders should collaborate with individuals from marginalized communities to increase representation, diversity, and learn how to better serve minority individuals. Individuals from these communities should be able to express concerns and provide feedback on how to serve and interact with other members of their communities. Lastly, agencies should be asking if their policies and behaviors are culturally appropriate and ensure that they will not cause further harm.​