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What does it mean to be trauma informed in practice?

Updated Thursday, 7 December 2023

What trauma informed actions and behaviours should police officers and others who work in the emergency services display? This article looks at the concept of trauma informed practice. 

For police officers and other emergency service workers, being trauma informed (TI) in their professional practice ensures the best outcomes from interactions with both members of the public and colleagues. But what does being TI in practice mean? This article will demonstrate that it is not a complicated or difficult concept. In fact, many police officers will, through their training and practical experience, be operating in ways that are intrinsically TI. The article discusses the requisite knowledge behind TI practice and the actions and behaviours of TI practitioners. 

External and internal TI practice

To be TI in practice means that you incorporate your knowledge and understanding of trauma into your everyday interactions. Therefore, it is not just externally facing with members of the public and the victims of crime you respond to, but also internally with your colleagues. A TI approach should inform how you work with colleagues who may have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and/or be dealing with the impact of trauma in their personal or professional life. Often colleagues will be the first to notice when a team member might need support due to the impact of first-hand or vicarious trauma. There is a tendency in the police towards reluctance to admit the need for and to seek help, due to the stigma of appearing weak and lacking in resilience (Watson and Andrews, 2018). 

This is dangerous for wellbeing because where the impact of trauma is not addressed it can lead to more serious conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Therefore, TI colleagues play an important role in supporting each other. Asking an open question, free of judgement, such as ‘What has happened to you?’ in the context of a safe environment could mean an individual starts to disclose their trauma history and takes the first step on the road to healing and seeking help. 

Being TI in practice also needs to have a wider organisational lens. It does not just rest with the individuals working within it but needs to be part of the organisational ethos, with policies and working practices also being TI, and an TI organisational culture supported by the Senior Leadership Team (SLT). A TI organisation will encourage help-seeking, and ensure individuals have a sense of psychological safety. It will facilitate training in trauma and have specially trained peer supporters who can provide an informal gateway into further support if required. The Occupational Health unit will be able to facilitate access to psychological support. Organisational policies and working practices will have a TI lens applied. The SLT will give support for and advocacy of the principles and values of a TI approach. 

The principles of a TI approach are similar to ideas of organisational justice that focus on the workplace, the treatment of those who work within it, and wellbeing engendered by ‘positive relations and a sense of fairness’ (Birch et al., 2017, p. 27). An effective TI organisation must have embedded values of physical and emotional safety, trust, choice, collaboration and empowerment (Fallot and Harris, 2009). Workforce trauma must be ‘recognised and supported, whether that stems from childhood adversity, adult trauma, or directly or indirectly through work’ (Gillespie-Smith et al., 2018, p. 35). 

Being informed about trauma

Trauma can happen at any stage of the life cycle. It is the result of an incident or series of incidents or circumstances that are traumatic in nature. They are ‘physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and … [have] lasting adverse effects on … [an] individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual wellbeing’ (SAMSHA, 2014, p. 7). In children, traumatic experiences, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), include: 

  • maltreatment (emotional and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect)
  • parental separation
  • domestic violence
  • mental illness
  • substance abuse
  • incarceration.

(Bellis et al., 2014)

Where there are no protective factors to help maintain resilience, such as support from trusted family members, teachers, community workers or other professionals, the trauma experienced by an individual can become toxic, leading to developmental trauma, i.e. impacting brain development and having a hyper-response to stressful situations (Trauma Informed Plymouth Network, n.d.). This can be further aggravated by circumstances in the community such as poverty, discrimination, and violence (Ellis and Dietz, 2017), impacting psychological safety. 

There are four key assumptions in a TI approach – realisation about trauma and its affects, that there is ability to recognise signs of trauma, that there will be a response through a change in language, behaviour, and policies so they are appropriate to trauma experience, and actions taken will aim to resist retraumatisation (SAMHSA, 2014, pp. 9–10). These assumptions apply to individuals and the wider organisation in which they work. 

Being TI means that you will have a set of values that inform your interactions with others: 

  • enabling people to feel safe (e.g. being mindful of the environment, allowing choice)
  • ensuring responses are person-centred (focusing on the person rather than behaviour)
  • being kind, having empathy for others and avoiding judgement
  • being collaborative (working with others to develop trust and find the best outcome)
  • facilitating empowerment.

(Trauma Informed Plymouth Network, n.d.)

When you engage with the public, who may be victims of crime traumatised by their experience, and when working with colleagues, you will utilise learning and awareness of the impact of trauma and the values of creating feelings of safety, being person-centred, kind, collaborative and empowering. 

You should also have a TI approach to suspects and offenders. A TI approach with perpetrators of crime can lead to desistance in offending behaviour. Someone who acts violently may have been subjected to ACEs and be in a hyper-vigilant state with an over-stimulated fight or flight response. Showing kindness and no judgement could help them to turn a corner. It will also assist in building rapport when interviewing suspects and being ‘suspect-focused’ in accordance with the rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) National Operating Model.


Bellis, M. A., Hughes, K., Leckenby, N., Perkins, C. and Lowey, H. (2014) ‘National household survey of adverse childhood experiences and their relationship with resilience to health-harming behaviours in England’, BMC Medicine, 12.

Birch, P., Vickers, M. H., Kennedy, M. and Galovic, S. (2017) ‘Wellbeing, occupational justice and police practice: an ‘affirming environment’?’, Police Practice and Research, 18(1), pp. 26–36.

Ellis, W. and Dietz, W. (2017) ‘A New Framework for Addressing Adverse Childhood and Community Experiences: The Building Community Resilience (BCR) Model, Academic Paediatrics, 17, pp. 586–93.

Fallot, R. D. and Harris, M. (2009) ‘Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC): A self-assessment and planning protocol’. Available at:

Gillespie-Smith, K., Brodie, Z., Collins, K., Deacon, K. and Goodall, K. (2018) ‘Moving towards Trauma-Informed policing: An exploration of police officers’ attitudes and perceptions towards Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)’, The Scottish Institute for Policing Research.

SAMHSA (2014) ‘Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach’. Available at:

Trauma Informed Plymouth Network (no date) ‘Envisioning Plymouth as a Trauma Informed City’. Available at:  

Watson, L. and Andrews, L. (2018) ‘The Effect of Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) Program on Stigma and the Barriers to Help-Seeking in the Police’, International Journal of Stress Management, 24(4), pp. 348–56.





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