By Jennifer Tejada
Emeryville Police Department
Statistics on police health and wellness suggest police training and support programs have failed our profession. Police reform measures also seem to have overlooked a key ingredient in the matter of officer performance.
Policing is considered a stressful and emotionally and physically demanding profession. We have succeeded in training our law enforcement officers on the technical and tactical aspects of being an effective officer. We have provided them with the tools of the trade. We have put them through traumatic and high-risk scenarios to ensure they know how to be tactically safe, to ensure they survive without injury, or at least visible injury. But what about the invisible injuries? The emotional consequence of not just one traumatic incident, but that of a career filled with traumatic and stressful events.
Police reform measures are generally sought through trainings focused on external factors, or through the introduction of new legislation, policy revision, or new programs. Expecting change to occur is futile when we fail to address how the stress of this profession impacts the well-being of our law enforcement officers.
I believe we have failed in our approach to officer wellness and police reform because we have largely ignored two critical intrinsically linked aspects of our law enforcement officers; the relationship between stress and trauma, and resiliency.
There is constant exposure to significant stress and trauma in this profession. Resiliency is the ability to rebound from a stressful or traumatic event. It means the cortisol build-up discontinues and the body returns to a state of normalcy in breathing and heart rate. The cumulative effect of stress and associated cortisol build-up has severe health outcomes such as anxiety, cardio-vascular disease, depression, addiction, obesity and the list goes on to include suicide.
We really haven’t focused on helping our law enforcement officers hold on to the humanity of their role in policing. Until we change our approach, we are not going to reform policing, and we aren’t going to do anything to improve the long-term health of the officer. We don’t usually talk about trauma, unless we participate in a de-brief which is a reactionary response versus a proactive response. The art of emotional stuffing begins in the early career with building the cultural armor of “tough it out.”
It should be no surprise that studies show we are four times more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation. We are 40 percent more likely to be obese. Depression is a common denominator, and then there is the rate of suicide. Police law enforcement officers are more likely to die from their service weapon than they are to be killed on the street.
The world of policing is extraordinarily stressful. Every year it seems that more and more responsibility to solve society’s ills falls on the shoulders of our front-line law enforcement officers. We are dealing with homelessness and mental illness in ways we never have before. We continue to throw new training at law enforcement officers: We teach them how to administer a drug; we teach how to identify mental illness on the spectrum of mental-health conditions; we give them resources to help people who are homeless; we train them in complex crimes such as robbery, sex assault, domestic violence, fraud and homicide.
But as we overload our law-enforcement officers with training, expecting them to become impromptu mental health experts, victim and family advocates, paramedics and heroes, all the while knowing they are encountering trauma and suffering, what are we doing for these men and women to ensure they can handle all of this?
The answer, unfortunately, has been not enough. It’s not even close.
That’s why in our department, we have focused on Mindful Policing using several approaches, but primarily focused on Mindfulness Based Resiliency Training. Mindfulness (MBRT) started as a secular practice in 1979, when Jon Kabat-Zin brought together two methodologies – a collaboration of science, medicine and psychology, coupled with Buddhist meditation. Over the years it has grown and evolved, and in policing, we are now seeing some benefits to officer wellness, and efforts like Richard Goerling’s, Mindful Badge training. Goerling is a police lieutenant in Oregon and has been a champion of MBRT for over a decade. He has participated in numerous studies to understand the impact of a constant state of hyper-vigilance that so many of our officers exist in, and associated health outcomes when MBRT is practiced. In a Mindfulness-Based intervention study on cortisol awakening response and health outcomes among officers, Goerling et al, found significant increases in resilience, mental health and emotional intelligence, and significant decreases in sleep disturbances, anger, fatigue, burnout and general stress. Officers reported less difficulty with emotional regulation, organizational and operational stress.
“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” — Viktor E Frankl
Ultimately, mindfulness means a focus on health, empathy, awareness and self-compassion, through understanding the relationship between stress and trauma, and building resilience. As policing leaders, how could we possibly not want to improve that in our staff?
Mindful Policing has the potential to really change not only how we approach officer wellness, but also how we approach implicit bias training and use of force reform. If we can teach our law enforcement officers to be more aware – to see that moment in time between stimulus and response as a moment when a mindful officer who is aware of his or her body’s reaction to stress and trauma can take those crucial breaths to strengthen attention and gain emotional regulation – they can respond versus react to events and people.
Police law-enforcement officers deserve a level of awareness and coherence in thought and clarity. It will serve law-enforcement officers well when responding to a stimulus in an environment that can have life-or-death consequences. Another study in 2016, “Changes in Facets of Mindfulness Predict Stress and Anger Outcomes for Police Officers,”showed officers who practice MBRT had reduced organizational stress, reduced operations stress and less anger.
It’s important to note that mindfulness has gone mainstream in many professions. Mindfulness for first responders – in the context of building resilience – is a different kind of training. I believe the model that works best is Lt Goerling’s two-and-a-half day immersion training, based on studies conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Pacific University of Psychology. I participated in a two-and-a-half day mindfulness resiliency training and the positive outcomes were apparent right away.
Many in the class of 30 law enforcement officers from all ranks saw value in it. At the end of the training, a 30-year veteran police sergeant talked about his regret in not having this kind of training early on in his career. He spoke of his fear of retiring because he believed statistics that say that if he retired after 30 years, he was likely to die of heart attack soon thereafter. Hearing those words is painful to me. Our law enforcement officers deserve better.
After that training, it was clear to me that this is what I needed to use in my personal space as a police officer, and it was what I perceived to be the missing link in our profession’s traditional overall approach to officer wellness.
There is another benefit to this. Research is beginning to show that mindfulness can play a role in the context of implicit bias. It’s important to understand that everybody has implicit bias. Implicit bias can can affect our judgments and automatically dictate our behavior in many instances unless we are present enough to be aware of it.
Here’s an easy way to explain implicit bias. When we are young, we are shown an object that has four legs, a back, and a seat, and we are told it is a chair. Then we see something that is made with cushions and is clearly much more comfortable, and we are told that is also a chair, and it is placed in the same internal file as the first chair. In order for our brains to efficiently manage and process information, things that are similar in nature, shape, and functionality are placed in the same internal file.
The relationship between these items that exist in the file but that are different is called a schema. We create these schemas of things that are similar and different and we create labels that are different and similar. We do this with people too, which leads to what we call implicit bias. Unless we are aware of this occurring, it can affect our judgment and result in inappropriate responses, and poor decisionmaking.
How do we overcome that? The first step is pretty simple: We just need to be aware. We also need to be able to respond outside of that natural response, and be more aware of the story or narrative that our minds create. If we can be aware of the story we are telling ourselves, then we can go beyond the awareness and have a much more appropriate response to the people and situations.
Mindfulness gives us full attention in the present moment, increases meta-cognition, and helps us grow beyond the simplicity yet inadequacy of words that become ideals. And if you think about it, if we can slow down enough, and operate with an awareness about schemas, we will be much better in our interactions with other human beings.
We as police law enforcement officers will also be healthier, happier and able to live full and fruitful lives. Given the personal sacrifices our officers make, isn’t this something every member of law enforcement deserves?
Chief Jennifer Tejada was named chief of Emeryville, Ca., in 2015. She was the recipient of the 2013 James Q Wilson award in community policing. Throughout her career, Chief Tejada has created programs and/or worked in a leadership capacity in several specialized areas including threat management, emergency and disaster preparedness, workplace violence prevention, domestic violence and sexual assault prevention, and hostage negotiation. Chief Tejada received a bachelor of arts from the University of California, Berkeley.