The Case for Mindfulness in Policing

Training our thought stream for performance optimization, resilience, & humanity

By Richard Goerling  |   May 23, 2018

With every footstep we carry our inner critic and the notorious noise of unrelenting thinking. This thinking mind can be trained to serve us in valuable ways through attention and awareness skills training, commonly referred to as mindfulness meditation.

The necessity for cognitive agility in both field operations and in our administrative demands creates an acute need for training that’s grounded in the best available science and our best insightful wisdom. Additionally, the deep physical, mental and emotional demands of policing are undisputed, too frequently misunderstood, and increasingly unattended by our police organizations.

Occupational stress and trauma is possibly the most significant variable of our performance in the boardroom, the squadroom and in the field. We have a leadership obligation to seek training solutions grounded in credible research and a scientific body of knowledge. One viable, evidence-based and culturally relevant approach is mindfulness training.

As a whole, our policing profession has ignored readily available data in a variety of scientific disciplines when choosing training for our operators and for our leaders in effort to improve health and well-being. Stress management training simply doesn’t have adequate outcomes and therefore is essentially useless. We must look to new training methods that are trauma informed and grounded in science and practice.

Science informs us, quite clearly, that training to the incessantly thinking mind is not only possible, but that mindfulness training can improve our working memory, cognitive agility, self-awareness, emotion regulation, sleep, pain management, cortisol regulation, and a number of health metrics that all contribute positively to an ethos rooted in a relentless pursuit of personal and professional development¹. In short, mindfulness training is about human performance optimization through training the mind, heart and body.

How I Arrived Here

In 2003, as a police sergeant, I began a quest to discover training that might best train to improve the police officer’s capacity to skillfully encounter the public across the continuum of tactical possibilities, from routine communication to a force response. To this end, I became a student of stress, trauma and human performance. Through a fair amount of resistance from our institution of policing,  a decade later we have credible research that include quantitative and qualitative data supporting the efficacy of mindfulness training among police officers. No other training available to law enforcement officers can accomplish what mindfulness training has demonstrated over the last decade.

Many elite performers train with mind-body interventions such as yoga, mindfulness, tai chi, and other practices. This isn’t a new idea, and it’s one that law enforcement leaders must begin to assess with an objective, and critical, lens. In the 1980s, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency brought Dr. Richard Strozzi-Heckler and a team of sports psychologists to Ft. Bragg in North Carolina to train mindfulness and other mind-body interventions to Special Forces soldiers². The culture of training the mind-body connection with practices like meditation and yoga is a valued part of many elite performance communities, from the military to elite endurance athletes.

The difficulty for police lies in the potential for our individual and cultural resistance to mindfulness. This may be driven by a broad training paradigm that rarely is trauma-informed and frequently fails to operationalize what we know about human performance into skills training. Our lack of understanding of mindfulness and the term’s annoying ubiquity creates a natural tendency to dismiss it as a viable training solution. If we can step into the brief discomfort of the term and all it often conjures up in our police culture, we can begin to see the tremendous value in mindfulness skills training for our police operators and leaders.

When we operationalize mindfulness for policing, we find that we, very simply, are training in awareness practices, enhancing our ability to cultivate keen situational awareness through attention training. Working with three types of attention (active, passive and meta), we explore the discipline of bringing our attention to a specific place (breath, sound, sensation, etc.) and repeatedly redirect this attention back to this place upon frequent distractions that commonly emerge. It’s this simple, and this complex.

The other training component of mindfulness for police officers is in the area of compassion. Working with the thoughts in our own head, our default negativity, requires some self-compassion. Re-training our inner critic to serve as an inner coach is our goal here. Working with compassion is necessary to build new habits of thinking. Additionally, integrating compassion skills training along with awareness allows us to improve not only our humanity, but also our emotional and cognitive agility.

What we know about compassion in the context of warrior ethos is that compassion is fierce, it is kind, and it has boundaries. The phenomenon of burnout, or compassion fatigue (really empathy fatigue, but that’s another article), is a real problem for police officers at all levels of our organizations. Compassion is a skill. This skill erodes over time when we don’t train in ways that sustains it. We can train mindfulness practices that will sustain our capacity for self-compassion and compassion for others.

Conclusion

There’s much for us to explore with mindfulness training in policing. Approaching this from a warrior-athlete perspective is helpful. In our relentless pursuit of performance optimization in all dimensions of our lives, mindfulness has a key role. With mindfulness skills, both formal and informal, we train our attention and compassion and become more skilled at self-awareness, self-regulation and seeing the world around us in more clear ways. We reduce our reactivity and enhance our capacity for informed decision making and skillful response to the world around us, in whatever state we find it.

NOTES

  1. Christopher, M. S., Hunsinger, M., Goerling, R. J., Bowen, S., Rogers, B. S., Gross, C. R., Pruessner, J. C. (2018). Mindfulness-based resilience training to reduce health risk, stress reactivity, and aggression among law enforcement officers: A feasibility and preliminary efficacy trial. Psychiatry Research, 264, 104-115. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2018.03.059

 2. Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2007). In search of the warrior spirit: Teaching awareness disciplines to the military. Berkeley, CA: Blue Snake.