Torture Survivors Meet St. Paul Police Officer to Address Concerns and Fears | The Center for Victims of Torture

Torture Survivors Meet St. Paul Police Officer to Address Concerns and Fears

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Shown are Jean Choe, CVT clinical psychologist and lead clinician for group work; St. Paul Police Sgt. Amanda Heu; and Heather Tracey, CVT social work lead clinician and case manager.

The wail of a siren getting closer. Flashing blue and red lights in the rearview mirror. Most people have experienced that sinking feeling when we realize we’re being pulled over by the police. But for those who have survived torture, that anxious feeling can be much more significant.

For individuals who have lived through targeted violence, interrogations, detention, torture and threats, the experience of encountering police cars, people in uniforms or even hearing the crackle of walkie-talkies can create extreme anxiety. Emblems of authority like these can evoke what torture survivors experienced back in their home countries.

As part of a plan to develop and implement more group work at the St. Paul Healing Center, Jean Choe, clinical psychologist and lead clinician for group work, and Heather Tracey, social work lead clinician and case manager, developed and piloted a 12-session group for torture survivors. This latter stage of recovery group is called the Reconnection group. According to Jean, “At this point in the healing process, members of our group work on reconnections of several types: to self, to their social networks, to the larger community and to family back home as they adjust to living in exile in the U.S.”

Last year, during a group counseling cycle at CVT’s St. Paul Healing Center, clinical staff noticed how regularly individuals in this mixed-gender group of torture survivors mentioned their acute fear of the police. In the course of a group sharing exercise, one client mentioned being recently pulled over by the police. Another mentioned that police had showed up at his door, questioning him about a situation in his neighborhood. The resulting conversation among the survivors revealed that almost all of the ten individuals, all of whom were African, had been pulled over or had some interactions with the police.

In planning the group content, Jean and Heather had explored the idea of bringing a police officer into the group as an intervention to help survivors face this fear in a trusted and safe setting. Because they were uncertain how clients would feel about this, they presented this possibility to the group. They were met with a resounding, positive response. “We know from our work with torture survivors that encounters with people in uniform and authority, especially police officers, can involve a great deal of fear and uncertainty. What survivors shared in group only reinforced our initial plans to bring a police officer to the group to help increase feelings of safety in the community,” said Heather.

“Many CVT clients take public transportation. The train in particular is frightening for survivors because it now has officers regularly checking fares. This can feel very unsafe for people who have been hurt by police officers or soldiers in their home countries. Survivors of trauma can panic in these situations. They sometimes freeze. Other times, they may want to run and flee the situation (and the police) due to their sense of terror,” Heather said.  Jean added, “As one can imagine, not only in these scenarios could clients be retraumatized, but they could also face dire or dangerous consequences if a police officer misjudges or misconstrues their actions. So, we knew there were multiple clinical reasons to hold this meeting.”

Through community contacts, Jean and Heather got a referral to a St. Paul police officer, Sgt. Amanda Heu. They first contacted her by phone to ask her questions and to describe to her the particular context of this request: these individuals were torture survivors who had very acute fears of the police. Sgt. Heu expressed interest in the meeting and came to the Center to meet with Jean and Heather for a more in-depth conversation.

“We discussed very detailed aspects of the meeting, including what she would wear – she offered to wear street clothes, but we felt it was important to meet her in uniform. Since our clients see the police in the community in their uniforms on a daily basis, and this is what evokes fear, we wanted to create a similar scenario. And, we wanted this exchange to take place at the Center with us present to maintain a safe environment,” Jean said.

When the clinicians mentioned the idea of this meeting to the group, the survivors definitely wanted it. They had some reservations about being with the officer, but they said that because this was through CVT, it would be safe. Given the level of fear people had reported, Jean shared, “It was somewhat of a surprise to me how enthusiastically they expressed their desire to have a police officer come to the group. However, the group was about two-thirds of the way through the counseling cycle, so these individuals had a solid sense of safety and cohesion.”

The clinical team pre-briefed the group, providing the survivors with the opportunity to set the meeting format they wanted. The clients planned a 30-minute meeting, during which they could ask whatever questions they wanted. The meeting was set up in the Healing Center, a space the clients know well, with the clinicians in attendance. This provided reassurance to the clients and the clinicians: “We knew we would be able to watch and make sure it would be a positive interaction,” Jean said.

At the meeting, Sgt. Heu arrived in her uniform, met each person individually and shook his or her hand. She worked to make a personal connection with each client. During the session, the clients opened up to her quickly. They shared their experiences of interacting with police officers and their intense fears. Sgt. Heu listened; she was empathetic and respectful.

The survivors told her they were afraid of going to jail, being taken away, being deported. She told them directly: “You won’t be deported.” She talked about how it is not the role of the police to deport people. She told them police are not part of immigration. Heather noted that this was information that was helpful beyond the session.

Sgt. Heu gave very practical, concrete information about their rights and about the role of police officers. She helped them feel safe to call 911. And she was honest. She told the clients that most police officers don’t have any bad intention. Sgt. Heu said they are good, they are honorable and most of them became police officers to assist people and help them feel safe.  However, she shared, like any group of people, there are some who cause problems. She told the clients she couldn’t speak to their specific situations, but she described what she knew were typically an officer’s intentions in a given interaction. It was clear she didn’t discount the survivors’ experiences.

After the meeting, the clinicians did a post-briefing with the survivors. All members of the group said that the meeting had helped them in some way. They felt safer after seeing the officer, and they appreciated having a personal interaction. In particular, the sense of being able to ask a police officer anything they wanted was very powerful for the clients. They felt safe. They had a sense of voice speaking directly to authority.

In addition to the meeting itself with Sgt. Heu, as part of de-briefing, the group did some mind body exercises that that helped them focus on breathing, feeling their bodies and feeling grounded and supported. These practices helped the clients connect to the present moment and work through any anxiety caused by the meeting.

Feedback from clients was unanimously positive. One client had told the group previously that she had gone through the process of getting her Minnesota driver’s license but was too afraid of being pulled over to ever drive her car. In weeks after the meeting, she told the group that she finally started driving. Another client said that her fear of the police had been the biggest fear she had in her life, and now she had moved past that. Another commented later that this meeting was one of the most helpful things for his daily life in Minnesota.

The clinical staff, too, reflected on what the meeting accomplished. The more they had heard about the internal fears as well as the regular incidents of clients being pulled over or approached, the more concerned they had become. Most clients had mentioned that they weren’t arrested or ticketed. They were just pulled over. Some had their cars checked. Not all incidents were entirely negative, but they were not positive. Clients mentioned that they did not feel they received good answers about why they were pulled over or approached.

Being pulled over in this manner “is complicated by the fact that they are all victims of torture, being targeted for one reason or another in their home countries.  Now, they come here to the U.S., to Minnesota, and have these experiences with the police. It’s hard to hear these things and see the impact on our clients,” said Jean.  She continued, “So we saw a chance to do something with the group as an affirmation. There was something very powerful about it. It gave others in the group a reality check, too – their experiences were validated.”

“It was really very powerful to see this happen in the group and see the lasting and empowering impact it had for the group members.” Heather said. “We’d love to do more of this with our clients in the future.”

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