More Police Officers or Less Toxic Stress?

This is the third in our series of posts related to the civil unrest in Charlotte after the shooting death of an African American man by a police officer and news that Chicago will hire up to 1,000 new police officers due to an unprecedented increase in murders and violence.

Jennifer Jones, director of child and family systems innovation, mentions the Alliance’s Change in Mind initiative to explain how we can actually get to a point where we don’t need so many police officers. See earlier posts from Susan Dreyfus and Undraye Howard.

My first thought when I saw the headline “Chicago Police Department announces plan to hire nearly 1,000 new officers” on the WLS-TV website was, “Is it really more police officers that we need on our streets?”

The mayor of Chicago recently announced the city will hire 1,000 more police officers over the next two years to combat violence, in particular gun violence in its urban core. Though police officers are critical to a neighborhood and city’s sense of safety, I would argue that more cops are not the only answer.

Chicago, and other cities across this great nation, are confronted with complex and multiple issues of poverty, racism, violence and trauma, some of which are passed from generation to generation. The myriad of social ills that face our families in the 21st century requires us to find and implement strategies beyond what has been carried out over the past several decades.

With the advances that have been made in neurosciences, we have the knowledge to develop more effective approaches, which support stronger foundations in the construction of the human brain. Because brain architecture and critical skills are built continuously over time, policies that promote healthy development through the early years create a foundation for later school achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, and successful parenting. This is how early investments in our youngest citizens benefit all of us, socially and economically.

The latest brain science research from some of the leading neuroscientists of our time have shown that growing up in poverty, with a household member who is incarcerated, and witnessing violence in the home and the community can impact the development of the brain, including the critical core capabilities that we need to succeed in life. Groundbreaking research out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows children from lower socioeconomic status have smaller brain sizes than children from higher income households.

Based on a substantial amount of research in the past decade, we know that this early adversity affects brain architecture and has a tremendous impact on later physical and mental health outcomes, and can result in early death. Additionally, early negative experiences limit the development of key skills, like executive functioning and self-regulation, both of which are essential in adulthood to getting and keeping employment and successfully parenting children.

So what does this information have to do with more police officers in Chicago? My point is, we must strive to prevent the toxic stress that is most likely to blame for the spike in violence. Let’s strive to prevent violence by addressing the trauma that these individuals and communities have faced over many decades.

The possibilities for this brain science is powerful. In fact, our public and nonprofit systems and policies are only beginning to leverage 21st century science to innovate, and become intentional and strategic in producing more effective and sustainable outcomes for all children and families. In fact, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, argues this new scientific thinking is on the verge of being leveraged, which will ultimately transform how our society addresses the lifelong impacts and consequences of adversity in the lives of our youngest citizens.

We need to invest in two-generation approaches and those that address all levels of the social ecological framework to ensure the healthy development of our children and reduce the external social, economic, and environmental conditions (poverty, violence, and racial/ethnic discrimination) that create toxic stress.

The Change in Mind initiative, a pioneering coalition of philanthropists and innovative community-based organizations from Alberta, Canada and across the United States is integrating these insights from recent scientific discoveries into systems and policy conversations at this time. They are doing this to promote decisions that will better support and improve the well-being and long-term life prospects of children, youth, families and communities for generations to come.

While the answers to the growing violence affecting our cities are complicated, the science is very clear. We need to transform our systems so they align with the best evidence to date. If we are genuinely going to move the needle on some of society’s toughest challenges, we need to change the systems that perpetuate the poverty, racism, and trauma that inflicts our communities so we can truly achieve healthier and more sustainable outcomes for our neighborhoods, cities, and society.

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