An Open Letter to (White) Police Officers who are appalled by how they are being depicted:
I get it.
You're under intense scrutiny right now.
I can imagine how shitty that must feel.
I bet you feel misunderstood and wrongly characterized.
I do believe that most of you are good people, dedicated to your oath.
So here's what I would like to impart about your role in all of this:
It is not your fault. But it IS your responsibility.
I have spent the last several years studying trauma and brain science. Here is what I think is going on: We all have a part of the brain called the Amygdala*. The Amygdala's job is to constantly scan the environment for danger and, when it detects something dangerous, to alert the fight/flight/freeze part of our brain to mobilize into action for survival (Remember the little Fear character from the movie Inside Out??!?). The Amygdala is continuously learning from our experiences and adding to its list of dangers as well as fine tuning its sensitivity to certain triggers.
And the crazy part of this process is that all of this scanning, assessing, evaluating the environment, the triggering of the survival responses, and then our subsequent reaction/behavior occurs in fractions of a second - faster than our frontal lobes (the rational, grounded, thinking part of our brain) can process what is happening. And this is adaptive! If we're in the jungle and a lion approaches we don't want to spend the time deliberating and weighing out the options of what to do! We would get eaten! So this brain function is survival-driven. It's literally how we're designed.
It's not your fault.
Our society, in many ways, hardwires us with racist biases towards certain demographics - especially Black men. Our brains receive implicit messages** about Black men from the media and popular culture as well as explicit messages from our communities and families.
All the information that we accumulate over our lifetime, especially information that is interpreted to aid our survival, gets coded and filed away for potential later use - it is stored deep in the middle of our limbic brain (our emotion center), structurally far away from our frontal lobes (our thinking brain). This means that what we "know" has little impact on our survival reactions. This typically does not present much of an issue for most of us, but for police officers there is a major difference. Your split second reactions can be (and have been) lethal.
It IS your responsibility
Every single person on the face of this earth, but particularly in this country, has work to do to undo the programming we have taken in. It's not our individual fault, but it IS our individual responsibility to acknowledge and work on our implicit biases. And, even more so for police officers because being placed in danger's way is literally part of the job description - y'all's Amygdalas must stay on overdrive!
The good news is that neuroscience is also teaching us about a concept called neuroplasticity. Our brains, even in adulthood, are malleable and able to change and evolve. But it takes conscious, mindful, repetitive interruption of our default programming. And remember, you can't think your way out of how your Amygdala works. This work is on a much deeper level than conscious thought.
I urge you (plead with you) to step up and work on this! Just as fitness requirements are part of your job, mental and emotional fitness must also be a priority. It is not your fault, but it IS your responsibility to not let your internalized biases be the cause of another unjust death of even one more Black man (or woman or child). Not.One.More.
You don't want to be mischaracterized? Then show us where you stand on this.
Do your part.
Find a trauma therapist.
Work on your shit.
We're counting on your actions to change the evolving narrative about police in this country.
Here's to hope,
Ellie Vargas, LCSW
Why is this so important to me? Besides the obvious (that I care about Black lives, due process, and justice), it's also important to think about what is happening to the emotional states of Blacks (and other people of color) who are learning (have learned) that police interaction = danger.
And for extra credit:
Here is a 5-minute video by a neuroscientist which gives a short primer on the Amygdala, the brain's emotional processor.
Ellie Vargas, LCSW is a wife and a mama of two girls, a trekker on the bumpy trail of personal growth, and a Trauma-Informed Psychotherapist. In that order.