Image Remixed By Nikki Muller
“Using psychedelics has made me a better, kinder cop.”
This statement came from a serving police officer in the United Kingdom, a “secret” member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), who agreed to appear at a public event hosted by OEV Partners. I was interviewing him for the capacity crowd at an event held a short distance from the Houses of Parliament in London.
A better, kinder cop. “Keith,” as we called him for the evening, explained that he had ventured to Peru to experience Ayahuasca in a traditional setting. He is certain that he was descending into mental illness before this journey. His wife had urged him to try it because their marriage was under pressure.
Revelatory tales of psychedelic healing are increasingly common. They appear in mainstream publications and the scientific evidence is rapidly building. In the United States, the treatment of military veterans has clearly changed the political discussion around these medicines.
I want to take this further and explore the implications more deeply. “A better, kinder cop.” Policing is in trouble in many nations where LEAP is represented. In the U.S. the fallout from the killing of George Floyd (and numerous other crimes) has seriously damaged the reputation and functionality of policing. The “defund the police” movement is a direct response but has what is probably the worst motto of any social justice debate in history.
As a full-time activist, I cringe at the excitable use of that phrase. Defund is a ghastly word that divides at a time that unity is required. I completely agree with the principle that we need more investment in health and public health solutions to our problems. I agree that police should not be the go-to response for a mental health crisis. But we have to involve the whole of the political spectrum. Framing is important. If we make this a partisan issue, we fail.
In Britain, we also have a crisis in policing. Evidence of misogyny and racism is featured regularly in the media. High profile examples of sexual violence by police are echoed by more allegations, including domestic violence and stalking.
Clearly, there are systemic problems within policing on both sides of the Atlantic. We have to look at the environment in which bad behavior flourishes. A sickly environment. In the UK, one in five officers have symptoms of PTSD in some form. In America it is one in four. There is a growing awareness that this has an impact on behavior. “Hurt people hurt people” may be an overly simple phrase but anyone who has known police canteen culture knows that collective stress can play out in collective ways. Teams can become collectively harmful.
Better and kinder. What we are talking about here is preventative action. “Keith” was not diagnosed with PTSD like the veterans of Heroic Hearts. Or me. However, he was aware that he was becoming unwell.
Officer wellness is becoming a major consideration within police academia and leadership. It sits alongside trauma-informed policing in discussions of how to solve the well-publicized problems. Those topics are a headline consideration for the LEPH23 conference.
The public discussion around psychedelics focuses on their potential as therapy for hard-to-treat medical conditions. Here we have a route to officer wellness. Prevention. The implication is a political cluster bomb.
Taking drugs to feel better is not a cure, it’s prevention. This draws our attention to the line between recreational consumption and medication. This line has always been blurry. People have always taken drugs to feel better. The political landscape has made this conversation difficult.
At LEAP UK, we held another event in March at Manchester University, in partnership with DrugScience. One of our speakers, Jennifer Schmidt-Petersen, is a former London officer and is now an academic. She is diagnosed with PTSD and publicly declared that her own Ayahuasca experiences have made her well again. At the same event we had Sarko Gergerian from the U.S. by video link. Sarko is a serving police officer also qualified in MDMA therapy.
In France, our LEAP team has been engaging the media and politicians about officer wellness. Fabien Bilheran has been brave in his honesty, declaring that his work in the drug squad made him suicidal.
Our work at LEAP is absolutely key to advancing the debate, in speeding up the acceptance of these emerging treatments. In the U.S. the acceptance of veterans using psychedelics has shifted opinion across the political spectrum. In Europe, while we do have sympathy for our soldiers in pain, we don’t have the same patriotic fervor around their roles. The issues within policing will likely have more impact for Europeans.
As an organization made up of law enforcement professionals, we will always seek to support our colleagues. We call out poor behavior and we criticize our former institutions for misinformation around drug policy. Yet our colleagues are still our brothers and sisters. We publicly demand that wellness within policing is given its due attention—for the sake of those who are in pain, as well as the wider implications for society.
Better. Kinder. This is what we should strive for. This is a new conversation. We are navigating a whole new territory, beyond the discussion around curing military veterans of their battle damage. Trauma within policing is like death by a thousand cuts. It’s complex and has complex outcomes.
Striving for a better and kinder police service is part of how we get to a better and kinder society. Seeing our society in these terms is within our grasp. We need the support. I regularly witness how we, as a police movement, impact an audience but we need more platforms.
So here I am asking for your help. Allies, old or new, please get in touch if you can help us change the world.