The Hillsboro Police Department in Oregon experienced a crisis in January 2013, when a 13-year veteran officer, drunk and armed with a rifle, frightened his wife into calling 911. What followed was an hour-long standoff at his house, ending in a shootout with 10 of his fellow officers.
Fortunately, no one was injured, but former officer Timothy Cannon was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Events like these have made Lt. Richard Goerling of the Hillsboro Police Department acutely aware of the impact stress can have on law enforcement officers.
However, Goerling thinks the usual advice on “stress management” is nonsense.
Police officers have no control over most of the stressors that bother them, he said. They can only control their reactions to stress.
“I’d like to move away from this notion of stress management and talk more about resiliency,” he said. “Stress doesn’t become the enemy. It just becomes something that exists, and I learn to skillfully navigate it.”
For the last 10 years, Goerling has been exploring resiliency techniques and assisting with scientific research into using mindfulness and meditation as tools to enhance police officers’ performance and well-being. He calls it Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training (MBRT).
“Police officers are required and asked to bump up against tremendous social problems, suffering, and trauma on a regular basis, day in and day out,” said Goerling.
Research shows that the job’s intense demands place officers at higher risk of developing high blood pressure, heart problems, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and increased levels of harmful stress hormones.
Studies have found that police officers have a shorter life expectancy than average citizens; one study showed a mean difference of almost 22 years.
The number of law enforcement officers who commit suicide annually is close to the number killed in the line of duty. In 2016, there were 108 police suicides, an average of two per week, based on statistics collected by Badge of Life.
In addition, public scrutiny of police officers’ behavior has increased in recent years, adding another layer of stress.
“There is no doubt a crisis in policing in America,” said Goerling.
Awareness and Compassion
Goerling believes mindfulness is an effective and proactive skill that allows police officers to experience all of the trauma, stress, and suffering inherent in their career while continuing to perform at a high level of skill and with a depth of humanity.
Mindfulness also helps facilitate any needed processing or healing from past trauma or particularly traumatic new experiences, so officers can come back stronger than when they started, he said.
“Now we’re talking about post-traumatic growth,” rather than post-traumatic stress, said Goerling.
Mindfulness teaches two fundamental things: awareness and compassion. Once people are able to quiet their mind and body in a meditative state, and begin to become aware yet not judgemental of their patterns of behavior, they can start to make changes based on compassion for themselves and others.
But compassion does not mean weakness, Goerling said.
“Compassion is fierce,” he said. “Even being authoritative and using force to protect other people can be done from compassion.”
Goerling believes police work is grounded in the traditional cultural idea of a warrior and requires a great deal of strength. This includes having powerful self-control.
Thus, instead of managing stress, “we’re really managing ourselves,” said Goerling.
“Emotional regulation is critical for everybody, but especially cops,” said registered mindfulness facilitator Brian Shiers, who teaches at the University of California–Los Angeles. “If [an] individual is carrying psychological, psycho-emotional burdens, their ability to make good choices is compromised.”
When people are under pressure, they often automatically revert to unconscious habits, no matter how much information has been thrown at them in an attempt to reduce bias, said Shiers.
“Bias is unconscious by definition. … They have to have some way to pierce that unconscious part, and that’s where mindfulness comes in,” he said.
Mindfulness has shown to actually change the structure of the brain, so the portion that reasons, notices cause and effect, and stays more focused becomes larger, and the part of the brain that experiences fear and anxiety shrinks, said Shiers.
“This works,” said Goerling. “This transforms policing from the inside out.
“When we train police officers in mindfulness, it radically changes how they show up in uniform.”
Many police departments in Oregon and California, including El Cerrito, Emeryville, and Menlo Park, have since elected to participate in mindfulness training, and more agencies continue to show interest, said Goerling.
Goerling has been invited to speak about mindfulness at police conferences and academic conferences; he does consulting work nationwide; and he is on the faculty of the School of Graduate Psychology at Pacific University.
In 2015, the National Institutes of Health awarded Pacific University a grant of $379,500 over a two-year period to study MBRT with police officers in the Portland area.
They found significant improvements in mental health, physical health, anger, fatigue, sleep disturbance, and emotional regulation.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to measure bias in mindfulness,” said Goerling.
He is now developing mindfulness curriculum specifically tailored for law enforcement, and says that in the last few years, there’s been a lot more interest.
Goerling plans to build a solid base of mindfulness advocates and evidence of its effectiveness and make a presentation to the Department of Justice.
But he admits it could take time to fully catch on.
“With every police officer that’s interested, there’s probably three or four who are crossing their arms and looking at me skeptically, and maybe one who just wants to throw me out the window,” he said.
“But that’s okay. That’s how change happens.”