Police Officer Health and Community Resilience:
How an Innovative Training in Compassion is Tackling Both
The profession of policing is rife with myriad occupational stressors that lead to high rates of stress and trauma. Law enforcement officers face disproportionately high rates of PTSD, depression, and suicide and one study found that, remarkably, only 17% of officers who were struggling with mental illness sought out mental health care services in the past year. The mental health epidemic among law enforcement is worsening and, without widespread institutional support systems, endangering the police force. Suicide is killing police at more than double the rate of job-related hazards. Officers often find themselves experiencing difficulty separating the daily hardships at work from their home lives, which may contribute to increased tension in the household: roughly 75% of law enforcement officers’ marriages end in divorce, compared to the roughly 50% national divorce rate. Approximately 25% of officers report being alcohol dependent compared to 7.3% of workers in other protective service occupations.
Recently, the age-old practice of mindfulness has become increasingly popular in a variety of fields, with scientific literature to back up the claims of its numerous benefits. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can lead to reduced rumination and stress, better memory and focus, less emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility, and higher relationship satisfaction. The field of law enforcement has been slow to embrace this approach to strengthening resources for officers, but that may be changing. As a result of some new programmatic offerings and mounting research, police leadership is increasingly exploring mindfulness-based training, as a complement to tactical training, to equip officers with techniques for stress management and self-care, which has the additional benefit of creating a solid foundation for de-escalation skills. A recent breakthrough study in mindfulness training for police officers showed that mindfulness training greatly improved police officers’ quality of life — including significantly reducing depression and anxiety symptoms. These findings complement other recent studies that have shown that mindfulness training helps officers sleep better, improves their relationships at work and home, and improves judgment and performance. These improvements in physical, mental, emotional and relational health suggest important and significant implications for addressing and improving fractured police-community relations.
An innovative approach to training
Center for Council, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles that delivers trainings that promote communication, enhance well-being, and foster compassion through mindfulness-based practices, has developed a program that aims to improve overall officer wellbeing and support better police-community relations. The Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy, and Resilience (POWER) Training uses evidence-based methodology, adapted for the unique environment and occupational stressors of the law enforcement profession, to train officers in skills such as interpersonal communication, self-regulation, and compassion. Their intensive six-month curriculum includes an exploration of the science of mindfulness and compassionate communication (council) and its beneficial effects on stress, performance, and community building. Equipped with the tools to handle highly difficult and stressful situations through a mindfulness-based approach, officers are resourced to improve health and performance, while learning skills to de-escalate conflictual situations without resorting to excessive use of force.
The program began in 2018 with a group of correctional officers from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was soon thereafter introduced to the Los Angeles Police Department. An “Innovative Programming Grant” from the state of California enabled the organization to expand the program to seven more cohorts, or approximately 175 LAPD officers. The program was featured in this year’s International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Wellness Symposium in an online presentation entitled “Mindfulness & Resiliency Meets Community Engagement: Empathy, Awareness, & Procedural Justice,” led by Center for Council’s Executive Director, Jared Seide and Richard Goerling, retired police lieutenant and mindfulness trainer, who helped design the POWER program.
In a podcast produced by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, Seide explains that the POWER program teaches: “an awareness of ourselves in terms of our body, mind, emotions and relationships, and also our capacity to regulate our stress and effectively manage our reactivity. It develops this through a great deal of science-based, evidence-based work that is offered in both the pedagogy and also interactive exercises… sustained through the course of six months.“ Seide goes on to explain how the program combines neuroscience, mindfulness practices and activities, along with the practice of “council huddles,” wherein officers gather to unpack the topics explored in the curriculum that are showing up in their lives and work. Over time, these ongoing peer-led groups help integrate the curriculum into agency culture. Goerling notes that compassion is critically important for health, as well as humanity. “Compassion erodes when we are constantly exposed to trauma and suffering without effective interventions to equip officers to show up day in and day out.”
Seide continues: “POWER equips officers with tools to navigate critical incidents, as well as the day-to-day stressors that build up over a career. In the council huddles, we hear others sharing stories and it encourages us to open up. When we listen to these stories, we discover commonalities and that starts to strengthen bonds. Relationships are built on listening and regard and a heightened capacity for empathy. And those qualities are important components of procedural justice.”
While it is too early to discern the long term benefits of programs like POWER training, the initial feedback from officers who have participated in the program has been very positive. Researchers from RAND Corp and UCLA have developed quantitative evaluative tools that utilize a range of validated scales to measure improvements in Physical and Mental Health, Fatigue, Burnout, Sleep Disturbance, Perceived Operational and Organizational Stressors, Emotional Intelligence & Emotion Regulation, Family Functioning, Resilience and other areas; findings demonstrate consistent positive outcomes in the functions measured. But it is the accounts and testimonials from participating officers that convey the greatest nuance, both in terms of improved individual health, better relations with colleagues and family and increasingly positive connections with community members.
Impact on performance
Officers are traditionally trained to take in the “totality of circumstances” when responding to a call, but they are often battling tunnel-vision and other physiological responses to stressful situations that diminish their capacity to perform optimally. The self-regulation skills that mindfulness-based training like POWER offer can interrupt habitual behavior and the reduced discernment associated with dysregulation and unmitigated sympathetic arousal (what might be referred to as “stress response”). In addition to the ways the training impacts performance, benefits are noticed in the realm of personal health and work-life balance. One POWER training participant observed that “The tools and exercises I learned truly helped me deal with many stressful situations. I was able to change my total mindset. I listened to my mind and body. I began to eat healthier, exercise daily and I made meditation a part of my daily routine. I lost a total of 25+ pounds and felt more in control of my emotions in dealing with stressful situations in a healthier way. It provided me with the tools I needed to keep my sanity.”
Feedback suggests that officers are bringing the training into their home-life and have found great benefit: “I’ve introduced the council to my family and it’s too early to know now but it feels as if my wife and I are a lot more mindful about how we communicate with our children and they with each other.” Another commented: “As an officer with 13 years on, I feel that internal health is very important. It is not covered a lot as far as de-stressing and taking care of ourselves after many stressful situations… I loved the breathing techniques and have implemented them with my kids as well. Smaller steps for them, but I feel that it is already helping… I have also made it a regular practice in the mornings and will start adding nights as well, but have noticed a difference.”
Another POWER training participant observed that “I thought I was the only one who felt like this.” The council format introduces the awareness that “that person right across from me had it worse than I did and they’re doing great. I should be doing great or maybe I could do things a lot better.” The training introduces a practice that, over time, intends to create a shift in agency culture. In the peer-led council huddles, issues that are pent-up are often brought forward. “You hear officers getting divorced because they don’t know how to speak or talk about their issues. They hold it in. This might help that. You hear about the worst thing we’re plagued with, which is suicide. Something like this would help you know. You saw it first-hand [in our training group] — an officer… big brawly guy… he broke down. That to me was touching because had you not had this training and had he not been there, he would’ve continued doing what he did, working and one day wouldn’t be able to handle it. Then what? But because he opened up and people reached out to him… I want to believe he’s at peace. He’s okay… and he understands that someone’s there… that we care about him.”
Some participants have observed that the training’s reframing of the hot-button concept of bias has been a revelation. In exploring cognitive biases, the training unpacks how our brains are hard-wired to confirm beliefs — and that our neurophysiology makes “changing our minds” a challenge. The ways in which some police officers, as well as community members, approach a situation can be colored by years of conditioning and a practice of mindful self-awareness can start to reexamine and reframe much of what has become instinctive reactivity. This training model offers non-judgmental, scientific consideration of these charged topics and creates the space — in large groups, small huddles and individual reflective assignments — to explore how these important issues show up in day-to-day situations.
Improving police-community relations
Recognizing the potential impact of this work on police-community relations, Center for Council piloted an advanced program that brings together graduates of the POWER training with community activists and formerly incarcerated individuals trained in the organization’s other community programs. The pilot was called “Cops & Communities: Circling Up” and was intended to create a space to explore how mindfulness techniques and practices like council could be utilized across diverse communities to build bridges and foster wholesome and cooperative relationships. While the scale was small, the impact was impressive and was captured in a moving documentary on the project. As Seide explains in the COPS podcast, “Mindfulness is about paying attention… and council is about coming together in a good way. We speak what’s up and we don’t interrupt each other. Council asks that we set aside whatever else we’re doing, that we agree to listen attentively to each other, without judging, that we speak what’s real and true. That’s it really. We offer regard. And somehow that’s enough. We give ourselves and each other permission to be ourselves, to be a little more vulnerable… and that builds trust, it builds community.”
Far from being a “feel-good-kumbaya” experience, Seide reports that community activists and formerly incarcerated individuals felt some trepidation joining the “Cops & Communities” event. As the event date neared, officers talked about their intention to “set the record straight” and expressed discomfort greeting and shaking the hands of former gang members. Some activists wondered if officers would bring concealed weapons, ready for conflict. Seide remembers the resistance and tension evident in the body language, as each individual took their seat in the first group council. And yet, with each moment to pause and settle, each breath and round of introduction, the resistance began to soften. Details emerged in stories shared about the human experience of being a parent, a neighbor, a son-in-law, a person of faith. What each individual had “planned” to say gave way to stories of childhood, family, pets and grief for lost loved ones. Stories shared with vulnerability seemed to resonate around the circle. Those who had assumed they’d be at odds with one another were surprised by the commonalities. The skills each had learned in their individual training programs emerged, providing the foundation for patience, listening and empathy. There was no need for mediation, debate or intervention. A sense of community had emerged.
Across the country, police-community relationships are more strained than ever, and officers and communities alike are feeling the negative effects of this disconnect. One of the most important skills that officers are developing in the POWER program involves a renewed and nuanced understanding of empathy. While there may be a time and place for emotional resonance, this training makes a distinction as it teaches the benefits of cognitive empathy, the capacity to understand another’s perspective so as to optimize a response that is most appropriate and beneficial. One participating sergeant described the benefit to an officer in his charge confronting an irate community member when the officer “puts themself in that person’s shoes to understand what they’re going through. To understand that they’re upset. They’re yelling at me, because they’re upset. But they’re not yelling at me because they hate me. I’m just in front of them. I’m that person. And sometimes, that’s our job.”
Mindfulness-based trainings like POWER have the capacity to create a paradigm shift in police departments across the country, resourcing officers and transforming police-community relationships for the better. When officers are given the space to open up about the difficulties they face and the tools to manage their stress and take care of themselves, they not only feel better but also perform better for themselves and their communities. Law enforcement is a critical component of the community ecosystem; the POWER training approach puts the emphasis on taking care of oneself, as an important first step in healing the fissures that plague the larger system. Seide’s new book, Where Compassion Begins, argues that our personal health and well-being begins with our ability to listen better to ourselves and the world around us. He points to the importance of attentive listening and ”cultivating a literacy, a vocabulary for talking about these things so that we can take care of ourselves and we can be allies. To go beyond this idea of “us and them” and really work towards creating the world we want for ourselves and our children and the next generation.”
Learn more about the POWER training and Center for Council here.