Skip to main content

Cops and Counselors

Mental health professionals call the police, work with the police, and act like the police. But even in our ranks, an abolitionist future is possible.


Since the 2020 protests against police in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the city of Minneapolis has paid out over $22 million dollars in PTSD-related settlement claims to police officers. These officers have been diagnosed by mental health professionals, filed workers’ compensation claims, and offered benefits to support their psychological treatment and lost wages. The exodus of police from the city workforce was cited in contract negotiations this year, and the Minneapolis police union negotiated $7,000 retention bonuses for cops staying on the city police force. As a part of that contract, the police now have mandatory mental health screenings following “critical incidents” like shootings.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis public school teachers were also negotiating their contract. They went on strike this March demanding increased mental health supports for students. Education workers argue that the school children of Minneapolis are struggling with mental health challenges exacerbated by the overlapping traumas of the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty, racism, and police violence, and the schools need support to meet this crisis. Even though the strike made some gains in mental health staffing, school counselor-to-student ratios in the city remain far below the rate recommended by the American School Counseling Association. As teachers struggle to support student mental health, the government works to bring even more treatment to police officers. A progressive state legislator from Minneapolis teamed up with a Republican state senator to propose a bill mandating up to 32 weeks of state-funded PTSD treatment for officers. While this is an attempt, in part, to keep officers from leaving the police force and filing worker’s compensation claims, the differential access to mental health counseling is striking.

Police seem to have much more access to mental health treatment than young people living in communities traumatized by police violence. This differential access to and different uses of mental health treatment pose a set of broader questions to professionals in the field. What are appropriate roles for counselors in relation to police violence? How can seemingly neutral practices like providing individual diagnosis and treatment end up contributing to the state-sanctioned devaluation of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian lives? How do we shift the social and economic structures that create differential access to healing in the aftermath of trauma? How do we acknowledge and confront our clients’ harm towards others, especially if they see themselves as the victims? These are issues that demand careful consideration.

In my forthcoming book Uniform Feelings: Scenes from the Psychic Life of Policing, I investigate the role of counseling and psychology in police power. In more than 15 years of clinical practice as a counselor, I have worked with clients across a spectrum of relationships to policing and prisons, including teens caught in the criminal legal system, family members coping with the incarceration of a loved one, and people working as jail guards and police officers. In each of these relationships, I have had to confront my own and my profession’s involvement in policing. Within my book, I explore my complicity as a part of the broader phenomenon of carceral psychology — the deployment of the institutions, concepts, and practices of psychology to support state violence. Sometimes we mental health professionals call the cops, sometimes we work with cops, and sometimes we act like cops.

One example of carceral psychology is the growth of the subfield of police psychology. As U.S. policing has dramatically expanded, police psychology has grown alongside it, legitimized by affiliations with the American Psychology Association and the American Board of Professional Psychology. In the aftermath of police murder and community protest, police leaders often use the introduction of new psychological interventions to promote the idea that their departments have reformed — increasing perceived legitimacy while doing little to shift ongoing state sanctioned racist violence. Police psychologists have contributed knowledge about psychological screening, trauma, and implicit bias, helping police organizations to claim that they are addressing racism. All of these interventions serve as “reformist reforms” — interventions that support a progress narrative around police professionalism and justify increased funding for police departments, while doing nothing to reduce the scale of policing.

In arguing against police psychology, I am not suggesting that people who have worked as cops should not be able to access high-quality trauma treatment or implicit bias training. Rather, my research found that the process of adapting these practices to police culture often undermines the value of the interventions. These practices are translated in ways that fail to confront the devastating impacts of police violence and de-center the experience and knowledge of BIPOC people and other people targeted by police violence. For example, a guidebook on best-practice responses to police shootings discusses how to prevent trauma to involved officers, with little concern for the traumatic impact on bystanders and victims of police violence. Implicit bias trainings for officers, meanwhile, suggest that cops suffer from being unfairly stereotyped, placing anti-cop discrimination alongside race- and gender-based discrimination. This supports a narrative in which cops are victimized by protestors and critics, encouraging cops to see those same protestors and critics as driven by an irrational bias rather than a legitimate critique.

Sometimes we mental health professionals call the cops, sometimes we work with cops, and sometimes we act like cops.

On the level of clinical practice, police psychologists outline counseling “best practices” specific to working with police officers. They appropriate the idea of multicultural competence to argue that police are members of a distinct cultural group that need specialized supports. The resulting counseling manuals instruct therapists to signal their comfort with guns and gun culture, while cautioning against ever interpreting any meaning in a cop’s relationship with their gun. This practice betrays clients, in that it treats the person’s cop identity as a given and fail to engage with the difficult questions they might be asking: Is this who I am? How do I feel about my relationship to violence? Is this job actually what I want to do? What if I’m doing more harm than good? Is it worth it?

Carceral psychology does not only show up in explicit partnerships with police. It also shows up when the realities of policing are dissociated from the counseling room. As counselors, we might ignore the impact of policing on clients who are not police officers, or might refuse to acknowledge their experiences of harm through policing. Sometimes, we might even deny our own roles as cops. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts has highlighted that the child welfare system “is a crucial part of the carceral machinery in Black communities” — one that counselors participate in when they break confidentiality to report suspected abuse or when they work in preventative services that share information back into the systems that investigate and forcibly separate Black families. Most crisis counseling hotlines engage in a policy of active rescue, in which they call 911 to send police into situations where people are actively suicidal — an intervention that has resulted in police killing people seeking crisis support. Counselors reach out to 911 because we want to help our clients — but police intervention can cause harm. Even when we are not directly engaged in policing, counselors can promote U.S. police culture when we frame current regimes of policing and incarceration as natural, necessary, good, inevitable, or unchangeable.

The practices of carceral psychology have been shaped through widespread copaganda, and police psychology also contributes back into these cultural narratives. One example is the rapid expansion of police memorials and museums. Since 1970, every state in the U.S. has built a memorial to fallen police officers. Created through an act of Congress, a national police memorial opened in Washington, D.C. in 1991. These memorial sites structure an emotional relationship with policing and police death, urging visitors to fantasize about heroic officers living at constant risk of death. Narratives at memorial and museum sites use the language of trauma to center the vulnerability of police officers and suggest that respectful mourning demands uncritical acceptance of ongoing police power. The national memorial is a “living memorial” in that it anticipates more death, with formal practices and rituals around adding new names to the wall every year. Meanwhile, these public memory sites often dissociate the reality of police deaths caused by suicide, intimate partner violence, race and gender violence, and the militarization of policing. Within their framework of mourning, to question expansive police power is to create police death.

Yet when we pay attention to these carceral narratives around how to understand vulnerability and loss, it helps us to identify their emergence in the counseling room and offer up new narratives.  For me, this has meant pushing back against stories that feel too simple, protecting a therapeutic space in which vulnerability can be tolerated and explored, and trying to name complicity in violence as I see it my clients’ lives and enact it in my own. Within this framework, the solid stone of police monuments and memorials stands in stark contrast to the temporary memorials that emerge on the streets in the form of cardboard protest signs and voices calling out the names of victims of police violence. The movement against policing and for Black lives embodies a different theory of mourning — one that gestures towards an abolitionist future.

In order to work with the cop in the consulting room, counselors need to break through our own resistance to acknowledging our participation in harm. This is especially pertinent for liberal or radical counselors who want to be on the side of justice and want to think of themselves as “good” — but who might continue to contribute to police power in our daily practices. Our silence on the topic betrays the radical potential of psychotherapy as a space for symbolizing and processing the most painful and difficult-to-acknowledge aspects of experience.

This vision of the abolitionist future is a resource that can support our profession in divesting from police power. For guidance, we can look to the abolitionist organizers, scholars, social workers, and teachers who have outlined models for practice. In our professional communities, we can demand that our organizations and training programs stop supporting the subfield of police psychology, while challenging our own subfields to consider our theories and practices as they relate to state-sanctioned violence. In our clinical work, we can develop our skills in recognizing and responding to state-sanctioned violence. Counselors can increase our awareness about the traumatic impact of carceral systems, make it a practice to name this as trauma when our clients present with it, and support our clients, whether they’re civilians or cops, in surviving and healing from it.

When faced with a mandated reporting situation in which they believe state intervention is likely to increase harm, counselors might say, “I don’t have a choice, I’m a mandated reporter.” But civil disobedience is a time-worn tactic in the struggle against racism. If our decision to follow a legal mandate is likely to lead to racist outcomes and client harm, a clinical stance of principled noncompliance is an option that must be considered. Addressing this situation collectively, we can also organize with other counselors to challenge state reporting mandates that threaten counselors’ licensures and livelihood if they fail to report their clients to state investigators.

Civil disobedience is a time-worn tactic in the struggle against racism. If our decision to follow a legal mandate is likely to lead to racist outcomes and client harm, a clinical stance of principled noncompliance is an option that must be considered.

On a clinical practice level, those seeking non-carceral responses to interpersonal violence can look to social work scholar Mimi Kim, whose Creative Interventions project gathers stories of people who refused police intervention as an obvious or necessary response to interpersonal violence. Following the leadership of the Trans Lifeline and their Cops Out of Crisis Calls campaign, we can build alternative response strategies that keep police out of mental health crises, including outlining the clinical rationales and advance planning with clients that support counselors to be able to choose non-response over police response. We can also refuse to partner with police in embedded mental health teams, demanding instead stand-alone mental health crisis response or increased resourcing to support mental health crisis management within communities.

Paula X. Rojas writes that social change activists need to recognize “the cops in our heads and hearts” and stop creating organizations and relationships in accordance with the logics and affects of policing. The same holds true for mental health professionals. If I have learned anything in my practice as a counselor, it is that in order to change a painful situation, we have to understand our own roles and where we have power. Through deepening our awareness of our own profession’s complicity, counselors can begin to understand new strategies to divest from policing on institutional, interpersonal, and individual levels. Recognizing and refusing carceral psychology, we can become a part of the important, ongoing work of building abolitionist futures.

Image: Fabio Ballasina/Unsplash