By Max Lewis for CopsAlive.com – April 10, 2013
Anger is a killing thing: it kills the man who angers, for each rage leaves him less than he had been before. It takes something from him –Louis L’Amour
About twenty miles West of Portland, Oregon lays Hillsboro. A city of about 91,000 people it has a unique mix of urban, suburban and rural landscapes typical of towns that greet travelers heading West towards the coast from Portland. Agricultural and other signs of rural of commerce blend seamlessly among signs of contemporary life like mass transit and a small but distinct downtown. Lattice Semiconductors and the software giant Intel both have a large presence in the city as well. Though not far from Portland it is a city of extremes. In the fall rain pours violently, in early winter thick fog hovers over the landscape and in later months snow can pile up quickly. In summer the Sun beats down on the flat city absent even the slightest breeze to offer relief and temperatures can hover in the 90’s for days. It is in this unique city’s Police Department that a Lieutenant is trying to implement the concepts of Mindfulness to the benefit of his Officers in the field.
Lieutenant Richard Goerling exudes the erect and deliberate demeanor of a life long military man. Twenty years in… the Coast Guard are probably responsible for that formal comportment but anyone observing him quickly gets the impression that even absent his extensive service record he would don a professional posture as an instinctual default. He carries himself in a contemplative manner prototypical of men preoccupied by sustained analysis of the world around them. Though a serious man he is by no means cold or stiff. Subordinates innately relax around his friendly and engaging tone and he banters back and forth among Officers with a genuine and natural ease.
Raised in California, Oregon and Washington, Goerling describe his upbringing as “classically Left Coast”. Before becoming a Police Officer he was a criminal investigator for the US Department of Transportation. Later, as an Officer in the Coast Guard, he participated in immigration and narcotics enforcement. Following the Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf Coast, Goerling was reactivated where he worked under Admiral Thad Allen as a strategic planner assessing the clean up efforts. His time in civilian law enforcement has been spent as a patrol sergeant, detective and Lieutenant.
Goerling says he first became aware of mindfulness as a patrol supervisor.
“Years ago as Sergeant I observed how newly hired police officers were behaving and I was concerned about our communication with the public. I was concerned that we were a little too abrasive or and that we really didn’t have the kind of empathy that I felt would service well in the community. It was cops just not being very nice to people. I’m sure that’s not a new phenomenon but in our culture it was something new. Two colleagues and I got together and did a lot of research and designed some communication training that integrated emotional intelligence into how we wanted to see Officers communicate.”
It was during that research on emotional intelligence where Goerling first came across some of the academic concepts around Mindfulness. Goerling’s team brought in a local yoga and meditation teacher for a consultation and collaborated on some training. It was then that Goerling became aware of the Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction program from John Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts. “We sent a handful of officers through that training and kept moving down the path of integrating those concepts into training.”
I asked Goerling what he thought separated Mindfulness from other methods of behavioral regulation like self-talk and visualization. “I think the simplicity of how it can be translated to meet the needs of its audience is what sets it apart from other emotional regulation techniques. We can teach Officers mindful driving, mindful listening and how to be mindful while searching a building looking for a suspect. We can teach them skills via mindfulness to regulate the psychological and biological response to stress. That means a better police-citizen encounter on the individual level, which leads to a better police-community relationship. In some respects the application of Mindfulness to law enforcement is almost a community healing salve. Through mindfulness you can build community one Police Officer at a time.”
Goerling also points out a key tenant of Mindfulness that is often missed by the casual observer. “Look, I’m not a neuroscientist, but what we are reading from the cutting edge research is that Mindfulness improves working-memory, which is a key component of cognitive performance. Working memory is critical because under stress its what we go to when we do things that are important. So for a police officer that’s things like how to drive a car code three (lights and sirens emergency response) how to use force and how to critically think and problem-solve. Working memory that effects cognitive ability and your cognitive performance can be improved by mindfulness.”
By now the case had been made that Mindfulness was something that should at the very least be explored for further development in the law enforcement culture but according to Goerling there are some major obstacles to its implementation.
“Even though the concepts and culture of Mindfulness are very close our warrior spirits in law enforcement there is a lot of misinformation out there about Mindfulness. I think one of the biggest misperceptions out there is ‘How can you be a warrior and practice the nonjudgmental and non-reactive tenants of mindfulness?’ Well because Mindfulness isn’t a practice of pacifism. This is a practice of being self-aware. Despite what the public might think law enforcement officers are trained to be non-judgmental. The best police officers across the nation are those who are non-judgmental. They may use force, they may arrest somebody, they may deliver consequences for some one’s behavior that’s outside social norms aka the law but that’s not a judgmental action. That’s really the best non-judgmental action we can ask. What we want to train out of Officers is the emotionality of judgment and mindfulness can do that. My experience has been that the boots on the ground can be convinced that mindfulness has real value. I’ve had a couple of troops go through the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course who are tried and tested warriors who’ve experienced a lot of trauma in their law enforcement careers and they were willing to sit down on the yoga mat and go through this course. The barriers that we see in trying to implement Mindfulness are in the bureauracy and leadership levels. Its people who frankly have forgotten what its like to be traumatized by the job. Its folks like me, who are not on the street everyday who’ve forgotten the cost of hyper-vigilance and chronic acute stress.”
The Community and the Officer
While some see Mindfulness techniques as cognitive based path to performance improvement, Goerling see’s Mindfulness practice as a way to fundamentally improve the overall wellness of law enforcement officer’s nationwide.
“All uniformed law enforcement services in the nation whether it’s the TSA folks you deal with when you travel or city police officer or a state trooper the relationship between the officer and the citizen is critical. One of the problems within our American policing institution is that relationships between the citizen and law enforcement officers are really poor. My hypothesis is that our relationships are poor as a result of the failure of the American police institution to provide holistic wellness for its officers. We don’t speak to their physical, spiritual, psychological or emotional wellness. When you have cops that are not well you don’t have police-citizen encounters that turn out well and that is going to cost this nation.”
I asked Goerling what other benefits Mindfulness had in terms of individual Departments. “Organizationally we are very concerned about risk management. Training cops in mindfulness I believe will reduce the incidents of force and the incidents of force that do occur will be more effective and probably better executed. Officers will perform better before, during and after a force transaction and their recovery time as a result of injuries will be reduced. What it comes down to is they are going to be better warriors. Mindfulness also mitigates the effects of acute stress, which means it can prevent cognitive failures while under that stress. So from that stand point, is that risk reduction or liability mitigation? Absolutely. But more importantly as a social policy I think we want our cops to be well. Don’t take my word for it. Talk to your neighbors and friends and most of them have horror stories about their encounters with police. We can do better.“
For anyone looking to learn more about Mindfulness and its use in the field of law enforcement there is a wealth of data which can be found in academic journals and case studies. For those interested in getting the concepts “in plain English” the author would recommend the following resources.
The essays, videos and books of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn; Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance: The Mindfulness Acceptance Commitment Approach by Frank Gardner and Zella E. Moore
Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark.
Max Lewis works at the State of Oregon DHS – Child Protective Services. Prior to that he was at the Maclaren Youth Correctional Facility. He also worked at the Hillsboro Police Department for 2 years as a Reserve Police Officer. He has Authored the following publications “Leading the Troops: The Role of the Police Sergeant” for Officerview.com in February 2012; “To Bear the Radiant Shield- Achieving Ethical Behavior in Law Enforcement” for The Institute for Law Enforcement Administration- Winter Edition 2012; and “The Lion’s Legacy: Community Policing Methods in British Law Enforcement” in The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin- December 2011.