Riding Along With Milwaukee's Counselors For Traumatized Youths
In Milwaukee, and cities across the country, mental health workers partner with cops to heal those left in the wake of violence through a science-driven police reform that may be immune to Trump-era politics.
Tai Hooper, 34, and Hendriel Anderson, 40, roll into the parking lot of a Northwest Milwaukee housing complex and jump from their car. They’re running late. Both know the basics of the situation: A week earlier, Alexis Varnado, 17, had been playing Grand Theft Auto at her aunt’s house with her younger cousin when two young men came to rob the apartment. The burglars wore sweatshirts with the hoods pulled tight so that their faces were barely visible. They pushed the two into the younger cousin’s room and told them to lie in the closet while they ransacked the apartment. Three hours later an older cousin came to find the young girl and boy still crouched in the closet, afraid to move. Hooper and Anderson are here to check in on the girl.
Together the two comprise Milwaukee’s Trauma-informed Response Team (TRT). First responding officers in District 7 — which encompasses some of the city’s most volatile neighborhoods — give the team a heads-up when someone under the age of 18 is present at a violent scene. The most common category for referrals is battery, followed closely by domestic violence; shootings and homicides account for about 15% of the referrals, according to TRT's 2016 tally. Hooper and Anderson collect the reports each day, and follow up in the timeframe that they see appropriate. If there was a sudden death, they give enough time that the family has had time to grieve a bit and bury the body. But in a case like Varnado’s, they’ll come by as quickly as the family will have them.
TRT falls under the umbrella of “trauma-informed policing,” a concept that at the most basic level means training officers to not exacerbate trauma at a crime scene. But in its ideal state, it is a model in which officers and clinicians work as equal partners to support people who bear the emotional scars of violent crime. TRT lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.
This is part of a larger push to alleviate police officers’ role as the front lines of our broken mental health system — 911 calls in times of psychiatric crisis have been documented to often turn deadly. In a model such as Milwaukee’s, trauma-informed policing would be more accurately described as police-informed trauma counseling. Hooper and Anderson arrive separately from officers, and are quick to inform patients that none of the information shared with them will be relayed to the police.
Inside the apartment, Anderson and Hooper are perched on stools at the small, square kitchen table, across from Varnado, who's dressed in skinny jeans and Doc Martens sneakers. The underside of her hair is shaved; the rest straightened and pulled into a high bun. She looks like a tough girl, until she opens her mouth.
TRT is part of a larger push to alleviate police officers’ role as the front lines of our broken mental health system.
Anderson sits with his arms crossed. He is a Marine Corps vet and a former police officer turned social worker. He will turn his law enforcement lingo on when talking with cops, and frequently mention his military past with macho clients, as if to assure them that talking about your feelings doesn’t make you soft.
He speaks in a low, authoritative voice. “How are you doing?” he asks.
“I’m good,” Varnado says, fidgeting and looking at the table.
He nods, as if she had given a deep answer. “And what does that look like?”
“Sometimes I worry,” Varnado says. “It doesn’t happen all the time.” She looks to her mother, Monique Lock, who is leaning against the wall behind Anderson.
She recounts the day of the robbery, and slowly opens up as she does, speaking to Anderson and Hooper rather than the table. Her narrative mirrored the police report, with a few added details, like when she peeked out of the closet, unsure if the burglars had left. Her cousin told her to shut it quick — "I don’t want to die," she remembers him saying to her. So she closed the closet door and huddled with him for another hour.
Lock wipes a tear from her eye as she listens to her daughter.
“You did the right thing. It’s probably because of your brave actions that you and Maliki are still alive,” Anderson says to Varnado, referring to her younger cousin.
Hooper nods. “Waiting for someone, that was smart,” she says.
“I think like, Oh shit, if I knew they didn’t have guns, could I have stopped them?” she says to Hooper.
Hooper is a soft-spoken woman with a warm laugh and distinctly maternal vibe. Her big brown eyes speak empathy. “That’s a normal feeling. Trying to figure out how to get past it… there’s no time limit to that,” she says.
Over the next 20 minutes they chat about school: Varnado is a senior in high school, and should be graduating this year if she can pass her math and gym classes. Future plans: college, hopefully. They ask about her appetite and sleep schedule: both normal. How often she has flashbacks to the day, or feels waves of anxiety: sometimes. “Anxiety can sometimes be good, just that yellow zone,” Anderson says, opposed to a red zone of anxiety. “It keeps us alert. You have such a good spirit. You bounced back." Varnado tries to hide a smile.
Finally, they inquire how Lock is doing: not as well as her daughter. She remembers the adrenaline rushing to her head when she got the call from her sister about the incident. “I’m like, They put my kid in the closet? It could have been…” She starts to cry.
Anderson gestures at Varnado. “Go give your mother a hug,” he says. The teenager stands several inches taller than her mother; her hug is encompassing.
In less than half an hour Hooper and Anderson do a little therapy (reframing the narrative so a person understands their actions in a positive light is a classic cognitive behavioral technique). They assess the girl’s overall stability (she’s doing fine in school and doesn’t seem to be acting out). They gauge her support network; she and her mother are tight. Strong family and social supports are one of the lynchpin predictors of whether someone will recover from a traumatic experience. And they inform her of other resources available (Anderson pitches mother and daughter on a support group for families).
As they gather their things to leave, Anderson and Lock chat amicably. Her tears have dried and now she’s laughing. They’re trying to figure out where they’ve met before. Possibly they crossed paths when he was a cop? Or did they grow up in the same neighborhood? He just looks so familiar — he gets this a lot. It could be because he’s so easy to warm up to that he feels familiar quickly, or because he has spent so much time in the community.
“Thank you, guys,” Lock yells after Hooper and Anderson as they walk down the hall, which reeks of stale cigarette smoke. “Be safe. Have a blessed one.”
America’s mental health system is ailing — states were forced to cut more than $4 billion in public mental health funding following the 2008 recession. And jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health hospitals, with officers as the first point of entry. Today, police departments are more accustomed to fielding calls dealing with mental illness than in decades past. Over 2,000 police departments across the country now offer Crisis Intervention Team training, which teaches officers to identify signs of mental illness, and how to efficiently and safely get someone in crisis into the care of a mental health professional. (Despite these trainings, about a quarter of the people killed by police officers in 2015 had a severe mental illness.) And even if the Trump administration cuts funds to experiment with trauma-informed initiatives, the movement is now grassroots. (All of the funding for TRT is from Milwaukee city and county.)
“We're looking at this from the standpoint of being very preventative,” says James Harpole, the assistant chief of the Milwaukee Police Department. Identifying and assisting children soon after a traumatic event will, he hopes, “get them on track so that they aren't spiraling out of control to a life that is going to find them locked within the criminal justice system, or the revolving door of the mental health system here in Milwaukee County."
Interest in trauma-informed policing is gaining traction across the country.
Interest in trauma-informed policing is gaining traction across the country. In San Diego County, all first responders — including police officers as well as firefighters and medical workers — are trained to calm people in moments of crisis. In St. Cloud, Minnesota, a chaplain, whose official title is “trauma-informed advocate,” is embedded in the police department to council potentially traumatized youth. In Boston, a local mental health advocacy and service organization is on call for police referrals.
The Yale Child Study Center, the epicenter for police–mental health partnership research, has consulted with and trained hundreds of local law enforcement agencies over the years. (Several representatives from Milwaukee visited Yale, but didn’t participate in a full training.)
“It's no longer seen as crazy, the idea of police thinking from a developmental perspective," says Steven Marans, director of the Childhood Violent Trauma Center at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, and one of the architects of the original police-mental health partnership model. "So lots of communities have been involved in versions of this kind of work.”
High-level leadership within the law enforcement community is tuned into trauma, too. “From law enforcement perspective, it is incredibly important that we accept new and evolving medical sciences,” says Ronal Serpas, co-chair of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration and former New Orleans Police superintendent. The detrimental effects of unresolved trauma, he says, are so clearly supported by science that the issue has become apolitical — it's as commonplace as taking an aspirin to alleviate a headache.
Addressing trauma goes beyond typical solutions to crime: more cops, harsher sentences, better schools, more jobs, and so on. The Department of Justice has been quietly supporting research and law enforcement experiments in this realm since the ‘90s. For example, the DoJ’s Defending Childhood initiative allocated $5.5 million in grants to address children exposed to violence at its launch in 2010, and subsequent funding for promising projects since. One fruit of this funding is a soon-to-be-released toolkit for law enforcement agencies to train officers how to respond to scenes where children have been exposed to potentially traumatic events.
In recent years there has been a newfound urgency to address childhood trauma, driven by deepened scientific understanding of what is at stake. In short, neurologists have discovered that repeated exposure to violence can cause a child’s brain to lose its ability to properly regulate stress hormones. Simultaneously, the part of the brain that activates reactions to danger is overdeveloped, and the part of the brain that controls those reactions is underdeveloped. The child starts to live in a constant state of fight or flight, making them less able to control impulses, more likely to react violently to real or perceived danger, and more likely to self-medicate this constant anxiety with drugs and alcohol.
Modern understanding of trauma is rooted in a landmark 1998 study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs), which found deep correlations between negative childhood experiences and trouble with mental and physical health as an adult. People with high occurrences of childhood trauma were more likely to abuse drugs, attempt suicide, and have run-ins with the law.
A follow-up study done in Philadelphia four years ago included adversities such as neighborhood crime, experience with the foster care system, and discrimination including racism. Nearly 40% of the respondents had experienced four or more of the listed negative experiences, compared with 12.5% in the original study. Someone with a score of four or higher is seven times more likely to become an alcoholic compared with someone with a score of zero, 10 times more likely to inject illegal drugs, and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide. A study in Florida showed that over half of the incarcerated youth there had a score of four or higher.
Headlines depict urban violence as shoot-outs and gangbangs —"American carnage" — and the numbing effect is part of the problem. It's like how someone living next to a train track learns to hear the train’s rumble as white noise — kids living with everyday trauma learn to tune it out, explains Steven Dykstra, director of TRT. “People, out of necessity, access that ability to set things aside and put them in a file and not deal with them," he says. "And they access that in a way that is ultimately not to their benefit.”
The police approach doesn’t capture everyone who suffers from low-grade trauma, but it is a step in that direction.
The police approach doesn’t capture everyone who suffers from low-grade trauma, but it is a step in that direction. Through TRT, Anderson and Hooper are reaching clients in communities where street violence is common, and who may not connect the dots that they could benefit from outside support. Often when TRT is summoned, the incident that got the police’s attention wasn’t the only traumatic experience that that person was dealing with. I went with Hooper to visit a teenage girl being raised by grandmother, who called the police when she found sexually illicit texts and photos from an older man on the girl's phone. During her conversations with the family, Hooper learned that a year earlier, the girl was sexually assaulted by a different man, and had been feeling depressed since. The grandmother, too, had episodes of sexual abuse in her past.
For a child to experience trauma isn’t necessarily a sentence to adult dysfunction. The most important factor is stable committed relationships with a supportive parent or other adult. Beyond that, some of this is biology; certain people are just wired to be resistant to adversity. But some factors can be fostered.
“One of the things that we're trying to do is to improve the odds that these children will develop well,” says Dykstra. “It's not about guarantees. It's about probabilities — it's about odds. How well can we help them to develop? There are a lot of forces in their life that are reducing the odds on good development. What can we do to boost their odds a little bit?"
The idea for launching TRT in Milwaukee came out of the City Health Department’s Office of Violence Prevention, who approached the police department. Then–District 7 Commander Jutiki Jackson was a natural fit to take the lead in MPD: He had already started a program where chaplains are on call to attend violent scenes, and he saw this as a step in the same direction. He was frustrated by the lack of time and resources that officers had to follow up and tend to victimized families.
“It felt terrible,” he says of the feeling he had as an officer, leaving a violent scene. “I can't think of good words to describe it — you just have this pit in your stomach,” he says. He grew up witnessing domestic violence in his own home, so those scenarios hit the hardest.
Hooper and Anderson, both Milwaukee natives, didn’t know each other before this job. Both feel like the twists and turns they’ve taken led them here. He was a police officer in the Milwaukee suburb of Racine and this is his third stint in social work. His father killed himself in 2010, which renewed his commitment to treating mental health. He turns on his police savvy when it’s convenient, both talking cop lingo with officers and sometimes taking the lessons he's learned as a cop into his counseling work. “I always want them to feel safe and be safe,” he says of his clients.
He started the job in August 2015, at the program’s launch. He was referred to Dykstra by a colleague who described Anderson as someone who met the job requirements, was a black man invested in the community, and had a law enforcement background to boot. He was happy for the company when Hooper came on board the following April. Having her “natural nurturing was huge,” he says. “It was a tool that I needed, working with young women, the sexual assault cases. And sometimes even little boys."
Hooper always knew she was destined for social services; in high school she worked at an after-school program run by the Salvation Army. She rattles off some of the social work she's done in the decade-plus since college: “Home visiting, home counseling, working with parents in schools, out of schools, supervised visits for parents that were trying to get their kids back.” Hooper isn’t naturally outgoing, but the variety of settings she has worked in turned out to be useful training for this job where on any given day she will be hobnobbing with officers, soothing a child who saw her mother beaten, and pitching TRT to lawmakers at city hall.
The nimbleness needed for this job requires Anderson and Hooper's supervisors give them autonomy, which works well for them both. It would be hard for a supervisor to look over their shoulder. They bounce around the city between patients’ houses and also between their three offices: a closet-sized nook in the Milwaukee Police Department’s District 7 headquarters; a private office in a resource center for battered women; and a shared cubicle in the county’s sprawling mental health complex. While on shift together though, the two rarely leave each other’s side, aside from meals: Hooper is health-conscious and brings fruit and nuts from home to sustain her, while Anderson has carried some of his on-duty eating habits over from his days as a cop. He knows when his favorite gas station's doughnuts are fresh and enjoys “sugar with a little coffee” to keep him going.
The morning after Hooper and Anderson talk Varnado through her feelings about being forced into her aunt’s closet by burglars, Hooper stands before eight officers sitting at tables in the District 7 headquarters. Apart from the wall décor, which includes a large screen with rotating images of “youth offenders" — teenagers with long rap sheets — the scene has a very high school vibe. In 10 minutes, at 4 p.m., their shift begins. This is the standard pre-shift check-in. Every six weeks either Hooper or Anderson spends the day attending these meetings to remind officers what TRT is, and what the officers’ role is to their work.
She is dressed casually in a denim jacket and floral scarf. Yesterday she joked that she would show up in her gym clothes since her day was starting extra early. The first roll call she attended was at 6:50 a.m. this morning. This is the third time she has given this spiel today, and she has two more to go.
“Does anyone else need a refresher on trauma response?” Hooper says. Silence. One officer sits in the back checking his email. She explains the basics, and urges officers to let families know that there is support available for their children and to give a heads-up that she or Anderson will be giving them a call.
“It's something you should get in the rhythm of doing, ok? If anything else this is an investment.”
“Ok, you guys have enough paperwork, I understand that. I as well have a lot of paperwork,” she says, keeping the tone light. “I'm going to give you one more sheet." She walks around the room, handing out copies of the TRT referral form, asking the basic whos, whats, and wheres that serve as flags for a follow-up call. This is not the first time that any of them have seen the form — it has been handed out and emailed to each officer multiple times. The officers also had small-group trainings on the program early last year lead by Dykstra. But getting officers to be active participants, meaning filling out this form and telling families about the resource, has been a struggle. As it stands now, most of the reports are flagged by hand, by one officer tasked with the duty of sifting through all the police reports everyday looking for TRT candidates. That officer, Monte Kirk, is sympathetic to his colleagues’ hesitance toward paperwork, even though it means more for him.
“Just think of all the calls you go to, all the reports,” Kirk explains later that day. “Then another little paper. That just might slip." Filling out the TRT form isn’t mandatory; nobody will reprimand them for not doing so, and thinking in terms of lasting trauma rather than dealing with the immediate situation requires a paradigm shift for officers who are running from crime scene to crime scene, he says, and will take time.
After Hooper gives her presentation, which lasts under 10 minutes, the District 7 captain of police, Boris Turcinovic, pops out of his office to deliver his own pitch. “It's something you should get in the rhythm of doing, ok? If anything else this is an investment,” he says. “We get them before they enter the criminal justice system. And it helps us down the line. Does everyone understand that angle of it?” The officers nod.
“Thinking this way for officers is a leap, it’s not a step," Dykstra says. "It’s not because they’re bad people, it’s not because nobody cares. It's because the way they think of their world and the way they care for people, this requires some sort of contortion on their part.”
Ideally, officers would be equal partners in trauma response says Yale's Steven Marans. “Often, the kids and families who are impacted by acute episodes of violence actually find some of the greatest therapeutic benefits from the relationships that they develop with cops that work in the neighborhoods."
But that can't happen overnight. In Milwaukee, like many cities across the country, antagonism toward the police has been brewing in recent years, and it runs deep. This frustration was manifested in three days of riots last August following the fatal police shooting of a black man, Sylville Smith. The shootings, and the riots, took place in District 7 at a park just five minutes away from headquarters.
Milwaukee County’s notorious Sheriff David Clarke — a Trump surrogate who once advised residents to defend themselves with firearms rather than call 911 — has been elected for four consecutive terms by the predominately white county. The city of Milwaukee is about 40% black and is one of the most racially segregated metro areas in the US, according to the Brookings Institute. Poverty is concentrated here too, primarily along racial lines with over one-third of the families living in predominately black neighborhoods living under the poverty line.
In this climate, TRT’s association with the police most certainly colors public perception of the program, says Dykstra. Of the 208 families that TRT talked with, 150 declined a home visit (though 69 asked for more information on services via mail). Dykstra would like to see those numbers improve. He is cautious of over-generalizing the reasons families decline a TRT visit but he says, “There is no denying that [distrust in the police] is part of what is at hand.”
Hooper is from a neighborhood in District 7. When she was growing up the neighborhood was safe, she says, and she didn’t give the police much mind. “I grew up with grandmother right next door to me, so no matter what I had someone watching me,” she jokes. She now lives in a safer part of the city with her husband and children, but she has watched her home neighborhood change over the years — violence has increased, as has hostility toward the police. She has learned when to say she's affiliated with the police and when not to. Starting the conversation with this fact is generally not the way to go, she’s learned. “Often in this community, the word 'police' is a trigger,” she says. (Hooper says that TRT doesn’t share any of its client information with the MPD or any other group without consent. Hooper and Anderson report only to their supervisors at the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division.)
It’s not as simple as pointing to a general perception that the MPD is violent or racist, Dykstra says. Many people are cautious of being labeled a snitch by cooperating with the cops — even though Hooper and Anderson arrive on their own, without officers, the fact that they are associates of the cops can be enough to ring alarms when they make the initial call.
Also, there is a fear among parents that talking with Hooper and Anderson might lead to having their kids taken away. “Many of the victims of violent crime are leading marginal lives that aren’t perfect and are reluctant to put it all on display,” Dykstra says. “There is nothing more extreme that courts do on a routine basis than take children away from their families. We’ve been really careful not to position ourselves in that way.”
Anderson says that he opens conversations with this line: “You’re not in any trouble, you didn’t do anything wrong, and I’m not going to take your children from you.”
“Hey, Lieutenant!” Anderson calls as he walks up the sidewalk of Maurice Shirley’s house. It’s about 5 p.m. on a Monday, and dusk has already settled. Shirley is in the driveway tinkering with his Ford Excursion.
A minute later he comes to the front door to let Anderson, Hooper, and me in. He is a hulking man in his forties who showcases his 20 years of military experience in his cadence and through the dog tags he wears around his neck. He often replies to his daughters’ questions with “affirmative” or “negative."
He nods at each of us and leads us inside. His three daughters, who are 2, 6, and 8, are sitting at the kitchen table eating a snack and doing homework. As we sit down in the living room, his 2-year-old, Leilah, toddles in crying. “I’ve got you, baby,” Shirley says. He envelops her in a bear hug, and draws her to his lap.
Earlier that September on a Saturday, two strangers randomly shot up Shirley’s truck as he drove with Leilah and his middle daughter, Jayde. Shirley was not new to being under fire; he has been on multiple tours on the front lines of war in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army lieutenant. (Though he was never struck by a bullet overseas, he was shot in the leg a few years ago in Milwaukee.) This shooting shook him more than any experience he had in war because he wasn’t in a soldier’s state of mind — he was being a father.
When the shooting happened, he was driving his girls across town to his parents’ house. He was slowly rolling down a congested two-lane road when he looked in the rearview mirror and saw a black Saab veer out of traffic to pass him. Then he heard the crackle of gunfire.
He immediately went into flight mode, wanting to get himself and his girls away from the scene as quickly as possible but, he was blocked in by traffic. The girls were crying. His mind raced. He reached back and tried to knock Leilah’s car seat to the ground to protect her from any bullets that might come through the window. So soon as he could turn, he did, and flew onto the highway and sped for about five miles. Then, he pulled over and turned his hazard lights on. He stepped out and opened the back door to get his girls and was relieved to see that none of the bullets had entered the car. “My legs started shaking, I couldn't catch my breath,” he says. “I went down to one knee because I really couldn't hold myself up."
Leilah seemed to be blissfully oblivious to what happened. The 6-year-old, Jayde, had some trouble sleeping during the weeks immediately following the shooting, but Shirley obliged her request to hold her every night until she dozed, and she’s now bounced back. But Hooper and Anderson were checking in on Shirley to make sure he was steady enough to continue to be a stable source of support for his daughters.
“Outwardly, you would think everything was just fine, but I was a wreck.”
The fact that his girls had been in harm’s way under his watch and he had no control over the situation was a fact he didn’t know how to process, and it was manifesting in ways he didn’t like. An already tightly wound guy, he was finding himself even more obsessed with rules and routines to exert his control. He had nightmares. And he was generally feeling despondent. “Outwardly, you would think everything was just fine,” he says, “but I was a wreck.”
This is the second visit. During the first visit they talked through the feelings of vulnerability that the shooting incident unearthed and they discussed ways he could ease his need for control. He was doing better, he said — evidenced by his state of calm while the girls were causing a ruckus upstairs. His newfound calm-and-collected parenting style was put to the test a week earlier when his two oldest daughters came home with glass in their hair. On their way home, a neighborhood kid had shot up the window of their school bus with a BB gun.
“The oldest, Isadora, was impartial — she was like, yeah that sucks. But for Jayde it meant something completely different,” he says. Jayde had flashbacks to the truck shooting. “She remembered the uncertainty,” he says. This was a moment — like many that are sure to come — when she needed reassurance from her father. She needed him to be a rock.
He felt himself going back to “that place,” he says, remembering how anxious and tightly wound he became after his car was shot up. “It was my child, I wasn't there,” he says. He thought of his conversations with Hooper and Anderson. The danger was gone, he reminded himself. Jayde needed his support. “I started to calm back down,” he says. “It was better, that was it.”
The session finishes with a family meditation session, led by Hooper. “This is something that is called four square breathing," Hooper says. "It's something that you can do without anyone noticing any time throughout the day.” She guides them through four rounds of mindful breathing: Breathe in for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and be still for four seconds.
“How was I doing?” Jayde asks, looking up to Anderson from where she is sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“Good,” Anderson says, and nods.
“So take that with you,” Hooper says. She takes one more deep breath. “It's something you can teach to others. You can do at any time, at any place.” ●
This article was supported by the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Journalism Fellowship.