I have great respect for those who serve our country, whether it be overseas or at home, in the armed forces or local first responders. I’ve seen first hand the stress they endure, and the unhealthy ways they can sometimes try to cope. With their increasing use of meditation, I’m encouraged – and encouraging.
The cops gathered in the dim, cozy studio. Dressed in gym clothes, they stretched out on dark green yoga mats.
Lie on your back, the instructor said. Get comfy.
Focus on your left little toe, he softly intoned. What’s there? How does it feel? He moved on, toe by toe, left foot, then right. How does it feel? Dry? Sore?
The instructor continued slowly, asking participants to focus their minds, and energy, on each body part. If you catch yourself wandering, he said, just acknowledge it.
Then bring yourself back to the present.
The class inside the small yoga studio that January day was the first for nearly 20 members of the Hillsboro Police Department. They were exploring the practice of mindfulness, learning how to develop inner strength, using meditation to become better cops.
Since last spring, the agency has offered what is believed to be the nation’s first on-the-job mindfulness training program specifically tailored to law enforcement and based on a widely recognized curriculum. Though the practice represents a radical shift, its creators say, mindfulness has the potential to transform law enforcement culture and reinvent community policing.
When he’s not on-duty, Hillsboro Police Lt. Richard Goerling is an adjunct instructor at Portland Community College, where he teaches criminal justice courses. He learned about mindfulness several years ago and started a practice.
For Hillsboro police, the hope was that the training could also heal a department that has had its share of internal strife.
The idea behind the program is simple: If cops were more mindful, then they would be more resilient, less stressed and better at their jobs.
Mindfulness is the practice of being in the moment — not dwelling in the past, not thinking about the future. It is the non-judgmental exploration of feelings, surroundings and experiences as they happen to heighten clarity and insight, and avoid reacting out of emotion. Studies have linked it to many health benefits, including reduced pain, better concentration and more self-awareness.
The Hillsboro program aims to build resiliency in a profession that can knock many down.
“Being a cop kills you,” said Hillsboro Police Lt. Richard Goerling, who helped develop the training program.
According to a five-year study, the daily stress of police work places officers at greater risk than the general population of developing a range of physical and mental health ailments. The University at Buffalo researcher – a former cop – who authored the 2012 report tied law enforcement stress with higher levels of sleeplessness, suicide and cancer.
Many groups have turned to mindfulness training and meditation. U.S. Marines are using them. So are the Seattle Seahawks. Google and inner-city schools in the San Francisco Bay Area are on board. So is U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who wrote the book, “A Mindful Nation.”
Mindfulness in the military made the practice more appealing and credible to cops, Hillsboro officers say. Research on pre-deployment Marines who’d undergone mindfulness training showed increased “mind fitness,” resiliency and ability to retain information, according to a 2009 article published in Joint Force Quarterly and other news reports. The military research program has received a four-year $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, according to The New York Times.
Still, in a paramilitary profession where toughness is glorified, the idea is a hard sell for some. Acceptance requires redefining the meaning of toughness.
Goerling knows that.
The program represents a dramatic evolution in policing, but he believes mindful cops make better listeners and smarter decisions. They are more productive, less judgmental. They show greater empathy and, Goerling contends, will have better interactions with the public.
“When we’re talking about a community that wants to be treated fairly and unbiasedly, mindfulness is the path to get there,” Goerling said. “It’s a bold statement. But there’s no other path.”
People constantly relive the day before. Or plan for the day ahead. Living in the past or future means missing the present.
Mindfulness is paying attention purposely, said Paul Galvin, assistant director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness.
Rooted in ancient principles often tied to Buddhist practice, mindfulness withholds judgment. It evokes compassion, acceptance and curiosity. It experiences sights, smells and sounds as they happen.
Being mindful helps people pause before reacting, Galvin said. To respond based on intellect, not emotion.
Goerling wants to see those skills in officers. Research, he said, has shown mindfulness helps with emotion regulation, another crucial component for cops. Self-awareness, he said, is important.
“We’re human, so to be able to recognize when we’re angry, even on the job and in uniform, is the first step in mitigating that,” he said. “The awareness of your emotions causes you to pause and make better decisions, which is pretty critical when you think about the kind of work we do.”
Hillsboro’s nine-week Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training program was created by Goerling; Brant Rogers, the owner of Yoga Hillsboro; and Michael Christopher, a psychology professor at Pacific University. They’re also tracking its results.
In the past year, they’ve held the training three times, costing the department about $18,000. About a third of the agency’s officers have participated. A number of civilian members have, too.
The program is based on the widely recognized Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, curriculum created in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Rogers, who leads the Hillsboro course, is a certified MBSR instructor.
Cops in the Hillsboro program were asked a multitude of questions on how they felt before, during and after the course. Christopher, the Pacific professor, then analyzed their answers.
Cops in the class showed significant improvements in perceived stress and police stress. They also showed significant improvement in mindfulness, resiliency, mental health functioning and levels of anger, among other areas.
This week, the three are presenting their findings and leading a law enforcement workshop at an international conference on mindfulness through the University of Massachusetts.
For decades, law enforcement focused primarily on the physical strength of its officers. Fitness and wellness translated to push-ups or sit-ups. Largely untouched, Goerling said, were ways officers could strengthen their minds, manage their stress and improve their health — holistically.
Cops have repeated exposure to trauma. They respond to drug overdoses, domestic violence, child abuse, car crashes, shootings, suicides.
“I guess we see quite a bit in this job,” said Hillsboro Sgt. Rohn Richards, who took the mindfulness training last year and found it helpful.
“Everybody we meet is having their absolute worst moment or worst day, worst time of their life,” said Richards, who’s also a member of Washington County’s SWAT. “That stress absorbs into us. It has to.”
Shift work causes stress. Internal politics do, too.
Hillsboro police decided to move ahead with mindfulness training last spring. Goerling, an academic who wears a uniform, badge and gun to work, drove the effort.
Three months earlier, in January 2013, one of the agency’s officers became involved in a shootout with police at his Forest Grove home. He was drunk and off-duty as he fired his AR-15.
Some Hillsboro officers were among the dozens who responded to the call. Some were friends with the now-former cop.
The incident rattled a department already plagued by internal issues. The rank and file didn’t trust its leaders. By March, the police chief had resigned.
Hillsboro Police Sgt. Rohn Richards
The agency needed to heal, and the timing was right to introduce mindfulness. The interim chief gave Goerling the green light.
Goerling, a self-described “misfit” in law enforcement, wanted the opportunity to change the culture. He’s seen how stress has affected his co-workers and is well aware of some of the not-so-positive perceptions of police across the country.
Cops interact all day with people as part of their job. The tone of those interactions, in large part, Goerling said, is a reflection of the officer’s mental health. Angry cops are unlikely to have good interactions.
If cops are not fully present, they don’t fully listen. They are out of touch with what is going on with other people, beyond physical cues.
Mindfulness, of course, will not eliminate officer stress. Nor will it change law enforcement overnight.
“It’s not pixie dust,” Goerling said. “You can’t just spread it around and make everything better.”
Cops will still respond to trauma. See dead bodies. See the same child being abused. Watch the same drug addict relapse. It’s the job.
But mindfulness, Goerling said, could bring some positive psychology to the profession. Discussions about officer mental health, he said, should not be based solely on trauma or fit-for-duty tests. Promoting resiliency and growth, including post-traumatic, should be a big part of the conversation.
Traditionally, much psychological support has come after large-scale traumatic incidents, Goerling said. While necessary, that approach ignores the idea that standard radio calls and exposure to negativity, day-in and day-out, wear on officers.
Hillsboro Police Sgt. Deborah Case
“We’re all human beings, and you absorb what you’re around,” said Hillsboro Sgt. Deborah Case, who took the department’s training last year. “When you experience the worst in people and when you see the worst … and the most sad things, then it’s going to take some kind of a toll on you.”
Case, a crisis negotiator and member of her department’s peer support team, said for years law enforcement has simply told officers that finding balance will fight stress and keep them healthy. The common words of wisdom, she said, are: Stay physically fit. Don’t drink too much. Get plenty of sleep.
But those tactics are not enough. Something to train the brain, like mindfulness, she said, has been missing.
The program is not a fit for all cops. It’s a bit far out for some, Goerling said. They think it’s a “little hippie voodoo.”
Hillsboro Officer Stephen Slade, who took the training last year, has heard it.
“You get the ‘te-hes’ and ‘ha-has’ from your peers,” Slade said. “Like, what are you doing? Big tough SWAT guy going into a room that’s relaxation and yoga mats.”
But Slade found it useful.
From what Goerling’s heard, some officers say the training changed their lives. Others aren’t sure. Some say it didn’t help.
Hillsboro Police Officer Stephen Slade
Goerling’s not worried. Their research, he said, shows that it’s beneficial.
The class is hard. And it’s even harder to present it to police.
Their culture is performance-driven. Cops are hard on themselves, hard on others. Still, the officers at the yoga studio in Hillsboro that January day wanted a taste of meditation.
The cops closed their eyes at the start of the class. They sat on the green yoga mats and stiff blankets.
Officers from Beaverton and Bend joined the Hillsboro officers. They were sergeants, detectives, patrol and school officers. Some were civilians, working in records and code enforcement.
As the class went on, everyone dropped down onto the mats, flat on their backs, and side by side. Rogers, the instructor, asked cops to direct their attention to their little toe on the left foot.
As Rogers directed them, toe by toe, left foot, right foot, some people fell asleep. Occasional snoring interrupted the silence that fell between his words.
After the exercise, they shared their feelings. Some were relaxed. Others not at all.
During the next seven weeks, they would continue. They would do sitting meditations. Mindful, gentle exercise. They would choose a mindful activity. Washing their hands. Brushing their teeth. Running. They would try to feel sensations as they were happening. They were learning, through simple tasks, the value of living in the moment.
Again and again, they would be asked to pay attention, to focus on the present.
If their minds wandered, they were told, just notice it. They were asked to not judge.
— Rebecca Woolington