CRINGE-WORTHY VIDEOS OF NEGATIVE POLICE INTERACTIONS WITH THE PUBLIC CONTINUE TO MAKE NEWS HEADLINES. LIKE ALL PEOPLE, OFFICERS ENTER SITUATIONS ON DUTY AND OFF DUTY WITH THEIR OWN ISSUES OR PROBLEMS, AND, AS COMPLAINT FREE RELATIONSHIPS: TRANSFORMING YOUR LIFE ONE RELATIONSHIP AT A TIME, “HURT PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE.” THIS SITUATION IS FORCING PUBLIC SAFETY AGENCIES TO NOT ONLY MAKE OFFICER MENTAL HEALTH A PRIORITY, BUT ALSO LOOK BEYOND TRADITIONAL WELLNESS TOOLS TO KEEP THEIR EMPLOYEES HEALTHY AND EFFECTIVE.
As agencies search for answers, mindfulness and meditation are emerging as innovative tools to tackle this difficult issue. Numerous articles in Police Chief have provided information in great detail about mindfulness and the benefits of adding it to the public safety culture, but the biggest challenge still remains: how best to bring mindfulness into a culture that probably will not greet it with open arms. Although there are many potential obstacles to introducing mindfulness into the public safety culture, one solution that has seen some initial success is teaming a contemplative practitioner (instructor) with a sworn public safety professional.
To make a contemplative program successful, public safety commanders must step outside of their comfort zones and be willing to show vulnerability by embracing new ideas. Edgar Schein, a professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management who is known for his groundbreaking work on the Organizational Culture Model said, “Leadership is the ability to step outside the culture to start evolutionary change processes that are more adaptive.” Without this type of leadership, new wellness concepts will never break through existing cultural barriers.
Another challenge is finding a contemplative practitioner who embraces learning the public safety culture. A practitioner must “get it” in order to overcome public safety personnel’s discomfort with outsiders and their unconscious bias about contemplative practices and those that teach it. Dr. Dionne Wright Poulton, an educator, diversity and inclusion consultant, and conflict mediator, writes about this inherent bias in her book, It’s Not Always Racist, But Sometimes It Is, stating, Individuals have to make a conscious decision to be open-minded in order to welcome people into their lives who don’t look like them. This often requires a person to step outside of herself/himself as s/he moves through the world every day.
The experience of City of Falls Church Police Detective Jennifer Elliott exemplified this point. In 2014, at a Mindfulness Leadership conference, Detective Elliott was sought out by Gina Rollo White, a mindfulness practitioner. White wanted to understand more about the barriers to cops meditating, but upon seeing White, Elliott immediately thought, “This person will never be able to train police.” With her pink mohawk (now white) and bold personality, White did not fit the profile of a law enforcement trainer.
Despite these misgivings, White and Elliott became allies, creating and implementing mindfulness curricula, including White’s course Tactical Brain Training, at academies and departments across the United States that provide officers with tools to help manage the impact of work-related stresses. Feedback from program participants has been promising, as expressed by a recent participant’s comment, “This should be a required course for all working in law enforcement. Officers need to be taught coping mechanisms.”
This is a great time for these tools to emerge, as public safety is slowly becoming more transparent to the public about the wellness struggles within the policing profession. In fact, according to John Violanti, a research professor at the University of New York at Buffalo, police and detectives have a significantly higher risk of suicide (69 percent and 82 percent, respectively) than the average worker. Violanti, who studies police health analysis data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also stated, “What they forget is that they’re human.” This concept might seem obvious, but it is what often gets overlooked—cops are human. Training the mind to think, to respond versus react, and to be self-aware are key components of mindfulness training, and those skills are all part of being human. IN THE FIELD Focus on Officer Wellness Cops, Pink Mohawks, and Mindfulness Self-awareness can be as simple as recognizing that the body is fatigued or it can be as complicated as noticing the nervous system is going haywire in the midst of a difficult experience and sending signals that should not be ignored.
The perception of mindfulness among law enforcement is slowly changing. Agencies are looking beyond the traditional wellness tools of the past and are embracing contemplative wellness practices in an effort to keep their employees safe, effective, and healthy throughout their careers. More practitioners are being asked to bring mindfulness to public safety agencies, and symposiums and conferences are including mindfulness on their schedules. Officers are seeking these types of trainings at conferences instead of running from them. Participant comments, such as, “We should have brought this training in sooner” and “This course took away the ‘stigma’ of meditation,” demonstrate the time is right for this type of training. Leaders in the field, including the unusual duo of Elliott and White, have found a healthy balance in delivering the science and application of mindfulness tools as a way to navigate the intricacies of working in law enforcement.
BY: Jennifer Elliott, Detective (Ret.), City of Falls Church Police Department, Virginia, and Gina Rollo White, Mindfulness Educator and Researcher, Mindful Junkie Outreach