Trauma and Our Law Enforcement System

In reading this article about a district attorney who is personally responsible for the U.S.’s highest per capita death penalty rate, it pretty clear he has seen some horrible stuff (boldface mine):

And he has been willing to recount his personal transformation from an opponent of capital punishment, a belief grounded in his Catholic faith, to one of the more prolific seekers of the death penalty in the nation.

“Retribution is a valid societal interest,” Mr. Cox said on a recent afternoon, in a manner as calm and considered as the hypothetical he would propose was macabre. “What kind of society would say that it’s O.K. to kill babies and eat them, and in fact we can have parties where we kill them and eat them, and you’re not going to forfeit your life for that? If you’ve gotten to that point, you’re no longer a society.”

That’s a hypothetical case, but this, apparently, is real (boldface mine):

Mr. Cox’s personality has been under scrutiny here since he returned to being a prosecutor after two decades in insurance law. Lawyers who knew him as a congenial and adroit trial lawyer said that in recent years he had become sullen and solitary. They also have described him as becoming increasingly aggressive in the courtroom, in some cases even threatening defense lawyers with criminal contempt for filing opposing motions….

But he did not dispute that the work he does had changed him and left him more withdrawn.

He describes this as a natural result of exposure to so many heinous crimes, saying that “the nature of the work is so serious that there’d be something wrong if it didn’t change you.” He went on to describe violent child abuse, murders and dismemberments in extended detail, pointing to a box on his desk that he said contained autopsy photographs of an infant who was beaten to death. He volunteered that he took medication for depression.

“The courts always say, ‘Evolving standards of decency tell us we can’t do this or that,’ ” he said in an interview at his office, where he had been considering whether to seek death in one case and preparing to seek it in two others. “My empirical experience tells me it’s not evolving decently. We’ve become a jungle.”

That latter claim simply isn’t true in historical terms: murder rates are quite low, compared to where we were in the late 1970s to mid 1980s.

District Attorney Cox seems like a dedicated public servant–he left a more lucrative private sector job to become a district attorney. But it’s clear the brutality of parts of his work have traumatized him. There’s no shame in that: everyone has a bridge too far to cross. But at the age of 67, I don’t think he needs the job. And it’s appears to me, anyway, that his judgement has been affected by some of the things he has seen at work. He definitely shouldn’t be making death penalty decisions. Maybe it’s time for him to step aside and find another way to serve the public?

I bring this up not to pick on Cox per se, but to make a more general point: yes, some people never should have been employed by the judicial or law enforcement system in the first place (e.g., bigots), but there are probably quite a few decent people who have been traumatized by the work and need help (if substance abuse rates among police officers are any indication, this is unfortunately quite common). While attorneys aren’t faced with the same physical stresses (i.e., potentially being shot), they do have to familiarize themselves with brutal crimes. Some of them, too, probably need to step away. Regrettably, they don’t. Unlike police misconduct, which at least is recognized, prosecutorial and judicial conduct aren’t really dealt with at all in the U.S.

Not sure what we do, but, at the very least, we should recognize the problem.

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3 Responses to Trauma and Our Law Enforcement System

  1. Colin says:

    “but there are probably quite a few decent people who have been traumatized by the work and need help”

    I wonder a lot about this. What is the rate of PTSD among police officers and to what extent does it play into police brutality? My guesses are “substantial” and “quite a bit”.

    • albanaeon says:

      Given how many combat vets are going into the police force, I’m sure you are right.

  2. ronzie9 says:

    I’m all for feeling compassion towards those in law enforcement like this prosecutor who have been psychologically traumatized by their exposure to the worst of humanity, but I think the harm they do to society and the functioning of the justice system are of greater concern. I’m sure this man is now more willing to err on the side of executing the innocent than previously, in part because of his desire to see justice done for the victims of violence, but also because he now finds it almost impossible to see anyone charged with a crime as innocent and believes “if he didn’t do this crime, I’m sure he’s done others” whenever any doubts about a criminal’s guilt arise.

    Another concern is his religious faith. I have heard self-proclaimed Christians say that it’s OK to mistakenly execute someone for a crime they did not commit because knowing you’re going to die on a specific date can motivate you to “get right with God” and then the wrongfully executed will go to heaven instead of hell, and because swift certain punishment will deter others from murdering.

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