By RICHARD GOERLING AND ROBERTO DIGIULIO
In the fall of 2013, the Hillsboro Police Department (HPD) in Oregon began a yearlong pilot project training mindfulness to police officers. Some people might be uncomfortable with that. But that’s no reason to cross the street just to avoid a confrontation. There are lessons to be learned.
Mindfulness is a level of awareness and non-judgmental attention to unfolding experiences. Cultivating mindfulness resonates with our warrior ethos and sharpens our readiness. It has its roots in meditation training to the U.S. Army Special Forces community nearly three decades ago; and the legacy of this discipline remains today. In more recent times, mindfulness training in the U.S. Marine Corps showed measurable results toward combat readiness, stress management and social reintegration post combat deployment. And a separate Marine Corps studied demonstrated that mindfulness training resulted in enhanced recovery from stress after Marines participated in “stressful immersive training sessions.” These studies of warrior populations are further supported by three decades of research demonstrating that mindfulness training enhances health and well-being.
Based upon recent research, we believe that mindfulness training offers the tactical community opportunities to enhance areas of critical need including:
- Sense-making, command and leadership at the Edge of Chaos
- Cognitive performance under acute stress (tactical leadership/decision making)
- Operational management and leadership pre/post critical incident;
- Human skills such as self-awareness, empathy, conflict resolution, and team synergy
- Recovery from the body’s stress response after an incident is concluded
- And overall integrated wellness of the officer, the team and the organization.
The human being is arguably the most complex, valuable and least understood technology that we regularly deploy in law enforcement missions. What scientists are learning about the complex interactions within these dimensions of mind-body can effectively be translated to our profession. From this translation, we can positively impact our leadership, our tactical performance and the well- being of our people. Mindfulness training, we believe, can enhance leadership at the incident command, operational leadership on the ground, and cognitive performance by the tactical officer.
At the Hillsboro Police Department, the Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training (MBRT) was a nine-week program with officers attending a two-and-a-half-hour session once each week and one six-hour retreat toward the end of the training. Researchers, led by Michael Christopher at the Pacific University School of Professional Psychology, designed and this project and mapped the results. This included self-reported measurements (taken pre-, mid- and post-training) recording perceptions of administrative stress, operational stress, sleep, pain management, anger, reactivity, burnout, resilience and acting with awareness.
Published results from this study are forthcoming this fall in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology. This is the first study of its kind that examines the impact of mindfulness training in policing. We expect future studies at the newly created Pacific Institute for Community and Organization Wellness—a Pacific University collaborative for training mindfulness to police officers and administrators. Ongoing MBRT courses will be offered through the Institute for Public Safety Personnel throughout the Portland Metro Area.
Based on a study conducted with Marines in training, neuroscientist Amishi Jha suggests mindfulness positively impacts working memory under acute stress. In a separate study, also involving Marines in training and under intense stress, Douglas C. Johnson suggests mindfulness training enhances psycho-biological recovery time. Previous research by Elizabeth Stanley and Amishi , based on mindfulness training provided to Marines, demonstrated that Marines returning from combat deployments exhibited greater emotional regulation and enhanced reintegration with social relationships and families. Each of these studies, combined with the Hillsboro Police study this year, provide substantial evidence that mindfulness training can impact the skill areas noted above.
These are just a few relevant areas that a mindfulness training program can begin to positively impact.
The research on mindfulness training in public safety is in its infancy, and we expect to continue to learn more about how mindfulness can benefit the health of our people, our organizations and our communities. We also expect to learn what doesn’t work well as we explore how to translate the science of mindfulness (a diverse melting of disciplines to include neuroscience, psychology, biology, medicine, economics, and sociology) to the construct of a law enforcement culture. Failure is not only an option; it is likely required, as we lead our police culture toward resiliency.
The first thing we recommend is to think of mindfulness as cognitive fitness training with the probability of a number of positive benefits beyond strengthening executive function. Here we return to our earlier theme: Learn. Explore. Collaborate. Train.
Kabat-Zinn J. Full Catastrophe Living. Delta Publishing; New York: 1990.
Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2003). In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching awareness disciplines to the Green Berets. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Siebert, A. (2005) The Resiliency Advantage. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion. 10 (1), 54-64.