7 Ways Mindfulness Could Support Compassionate Policing

Founding Editor Barry Boyce considers what contribution mindfulness practice might make to the change people are seeking in police departments.

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We have a big problem with policing—many problems in fact. That’s been clear for a long time. A force created for public safety and protection too often brutalizes the very public it’s serving, and the results of such brutality—often violent death—are borne most heavily by the racialized and marginalized. In recent days, it has once again reached a tipping point—and there is widespread hope that the shock and outrage and grieving will lead to real change this time. Many communities resolve to effect change that results in noticeable, measurable outcomes. Now.

Mindfulness may be able to help with that change. It can be a complementary part of broad, comprehensive transformation. 

Police have been telling Mindful for years that a few things are missing in their training and preparedness. For example, one thing that would help police de-escalate encounters would be methods for regulating stress based on an understanding of how stress operates in the body and mind. Also, many mindfulness teachers focus on uncovering and working with our implicit bias, which if left unexplored can have tragic consequences.

Mindfulness methods can transform the very act of policing into something based on compassion.

In 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing released recommendations for transforming police forces that included promoting “officer wellness through physical, social and mental health support”; encouraging communities to “support a culture and practice of policing that reflects the values of protection and promotion of the dignity of all, especially the most vulnerable”; and to develop practices that “emphasize deescalation and alternatives to arrest or summons in situations where appropriate.” Wellness, mental health, promoting dignity and protecting the vulnerable, deescalating… These are mindful values. And mindfulness practice inculcates them in people.

Police have told us that mindfulness methods can transform the very act of policing into something based on compassion. As a result, a meditating police lieutenant appeared on our cover in our first year and a few years later a chief of police—to demonstrate our commitment to bringing mindfulness and related practices to those in high-stress positions. 

At mindfulness conferences, police officers have pulled me aside and talked about how mindfulness, awareness, kindness, and compassion can be transformative for people asked to go toward situations most of us avoid. They’ve talked about the challenges of bringing about change in entrenched bureaucracies, but also about how many officers they know who want to grow and change. 

Mindful’s commitment to exploring how to police with more compassion and equanimity has special meaning for me, given that my grandfather was a NYPD police sergeant killed in the line of duty. I would like to think he would honor this work we do today. Given the urgent need for change in policing and police departments, we’re sharing the following summation of ways mindfulness could support compassionate policing, drawn from award-winning reporter Barry Yeoman’s cover story “Mindful Policing: The Future of Force.” 

How Mindfulness Could Support Compassionate Policing

1. Understand and Counteract Implicit Bias

“When you think about police culture at the organizational [level], there’s no wonder you have excessive uses of force,” says former federal prosecutor Kami Chavis, director of the criminal-justice program at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University School of Law. “Violence is an accepted way of dealing with certain situations. There’s also this group loyalty: This is your brother, your sister, and you have to protect them at all costs.” That loyalty can be beneficial, she says, until it interferes with better judgment.

Mindfulness could reduce unnecessary violence, Chavis adds—by helping officers self-regulate, or by serving as a check against implicit bias. To prove it, though, “we’re going to need time and longitudinal studies.”

2. Support Mental Health

When police suffer from debilitating stress, they are more likely to exhibit problems at work, “including uncontrolled anger toward suspects,” researchers at Oregon’s Pacific University noted in a 2015 study…“Fatigue and sleep disturbance are predictors of dysregulated mood, particularly anger,” says lead author Mike Christopher, an associate professor of clinical psychology. “And we know that anger is a big predictor of negative outcomes for police officers on the force.”

3. Incorporate Self-Awareness Check-Ins

Police lieutenant Richard Goerling: “Before we deploy, there’s a self-awareness check. We’re going to take a moment to do some deep breathing. We have to be aware of how we feel.” 

Editor’s note: One of the much-discussed benefits of mindfulness practice is the cultivation of meta-awareness or meta-cognition. It’s one thing to have an experience. It’s another thing to know in your body that you’re having that experience. It’s the difference between mindlessly going through an emotion and actually acknowledging and knowing that it’s happening. Doing a self-awareness check-in—a mindfulness practice—helps to increase the habit of knowing what you’re feeling and how that could affect your actions.

4. Learn to Identify (and not Judge) Emotions

Goerling talks about how it’s necessary to learn not to suppress emotions: “We’re going to embrace the fear. We’re going to embrace, maybe, the anger at the injustice that’s occurring. But we’re not going to let those emotions interfere with our tactical, cognitive decision-making.”

5. Employ Tactical Mindfulness

… in Emeryville, [Police Chief Jennifer] Tejada says her early offerings are just a prelude to a more significant shift. “One of things we’re going to do with our defensive-tactics training—where the officers are learning all the tactics they need—we are going to formally introduce the concept of mindfulness-at-the-moment,” she says. “We’re not just having conversations about it; we’re actually incorporating mindfulness meditation into the training.” It might still seem odd to some of her officers, but the chief is standing firm. “This is not a suggestion at this point,” she says. “This is what we’re doing from here on out.”

6. Prioritize De-escalation Tactics & Shift the Culture

Some departments are already starting to change their cultures. De-escalating conflict, for example, is becoming a higher priority. Mindfulness training could help reinforce this, says Alex Vitale, a sociologist who coordinates the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College—for instance, if officers learn to carve out a few extra seconds to assess potentially dangerous situations. But it needs to be paired with that cultural shift. “Any discussion about mindfulness, about teaching officers techniques,” he says, “requires you move away from the dominant command-and-control approach: see a threat, neutralize the threat.”

7. Introduce Trauma-Sensitive Practices

In a related piece by Marisela Gomez—community activist, author, public health professional, and physician—and Richard Goerling, Dr. Gomez talks about how so many police have a fear of “the other,” that which is unknown and therefore threatening to them. It’s an environment we’re all swimming in. She says, “The cultural imprinting of racism, of superiority, fear, hatred, and anger percolates throughout our national consciousness. We continue to sow new seeds of separation and violence.” It’s a kind of trauma that has infected the body politic.

Police themselves have often been traumatized, either in the line of duty or simply in their own lives. Goerling is emphatic that police need to “Learn how trauma and operational stress impact the human beings behind the badge. This is a critical area of study and one that policing fails to address with tragic consequences for police officers and the public alike.” He emphasizes the importance of not only being sensitive to trauma and sensitive to cultural difference, but especially being trauma-competent and culturally competent, which means having knowledge about how things work, self-knowledge, and actual skills to apply and refine in the moment.

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