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Mindful : August 2017
According to Washington Post databases, 963 people were shot dead by police in the United States in 2016, and 991 in 2015. Some of the recent killings have triggered large protests and helped give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s a reasonable question to ask: What is going on?” says Matthew Hunsinger, an assistant pro- fessor of psychology at Pacific University and an author of the 2015 study. “How are officers com- ing to make this decision to use their firearms when the black male turns out to be unarmed?” It’s a vexing question that doesn’t lend itself to simple policy solutions. But some experts are suggesting that one way to help reduce unnec- essary police violence is by improving officer wellness. “If I’m clinically depressed [and] undiagnosed—which I would arg ue many of us are—and I’m struggling to even regulate my own space, how the hell do I have the capacity to have empathy?” asks Richard Goerling, a police lieutenant in Hillsboro, Oregon. “How are we supposed to navigate someone else’s suffering if we can’t even navigate our own?” Goerling is the founder of the Mindful Badge Initiative, a consultancy that provides resilience training to first responders. (See “To Pause and Protect,” Mindful, October 2013.) He’s one of the leaders of a growing movement to introduce mindfulness practices to police departments— and, in the process, to cultivate compassion toward the communities they serve. Goerling is working with law-enforcement agencies around the country, participating in research, and helping develop a set of best practices for the young field. Some initial findings look promising. The Pacific University study, in which Goerling took part, led 43 officers through a curriculum called Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training (MBRT), which includes meditation, martial arts, and breath- and body-awareness. (It’s a police-friendly version of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.) At the end of the eight-week program, the researchers found “significant improvement” in health outcomes like stress, fatigue, and sleep quality. “Fatigue and sleep disturbance are predictors of dysregulated mood, particularly anger,” says lead author Mike Christopher, an associate pro- fessor of clinical psychology. “And we know that anger is a big predictor of negative outcomes for police officers on the force.” Newer, unpublished data from Pacific show a second group of officers drinking alcohol less frequently, feeling less burned out, and having fewer aggressive feelings and behaviors after undergoing training. What remains to be learned is how these early results translate to the street. The Pacific team tried to measure whether mindfulness training can reduce implicit racial bias—“that level of bias we all have at an unconscious level,” says Christopher. They used a simulation game in which officers had to make snap decisions about whether people of different races were holding weapons (as opposed to, say, soda cans). But the officers performed so well before the training, Hunsinger says, that researchers could not mea- sure improvement. Still, Hunsinger feels optimistic. “ We believe this [mindfulness] training will build resilience—our ability to bounce back from stress—and resilience is going to have all sorts of downstream consequences in the commu- nity,” he says. One measure psychologists use is “response inhibition,” the ability to suppress a kneejerk urge to do something harmful like reach for a gun unnecessarily. “The more resilient someone is, the better their response inhibition is going to be, because they’re going to have more cognitive resources.” While researchers like Hunsinger and Christo- pher test that hypothesis in controlled studies, it’s playing out elsewhere as a natural experiment— in places like Emery ville (population 11,700), a tough former steel town adjacent to Oakland, where an innovative police chief is bringing some hard-earned wisdom into the workplace. → Emeryville, a former industrial town on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, serves as a major transportation corridor for the entire Bay Area. Here, rich tidal land collides with eight-lane highways to form the character of this small city. Bottom left: Officer Jaime Pardo responds to a reported break in. At age 27, he’s one of the newer members of the Emeryville Police force. Bottom right: Sergeant Joel Hannon questions a motorist. Despite its small size—fewer than 12,000 residents— Emeryville hosts more than 50,000 daily commuters. Officers must anticipate a number of potential scenarios even in routine traffic stops. 64 mindful August 2017 community