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Mindful : August 2017
Left: Captain Oliver Collins, a participant in the EPD pilot program, decompresses in the on-site Training Room, used daily by pilot program participants for meditation and rest. Top right: Emeryville Police Chief Jennifer Tejada, who joined the department in 2015, works late at home. The workload and stress of her job extends far beyond office hours. Bottom right: The department provided officers with new iPhones uploaded with meditation, breathing, and self-monitoring apps. Early research has found significant improvement in stress, fatigue, sleep quality, and aggressive behaviors among officers who have undergone Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training, a program similar to MBSR. and controlled breathing—then thrown into tense, lifelike scenes involving a fleeing murder suspect, a fistfight, a hostage-taker, an impend- ing assault with a wrench, and a bystander holding a radio. “ You have to stress them out in reality-based scenarios, where you increase the speed and complexity while they learn to control their stress and threat responses,” says study author Judith Andersen, an assis- tant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. “They then gain the confidence that they can do the right thing, even under the most highly stressful situation.” Andersen found that the trained officers made better use-of-force decisions than an untrained control group. They also had slower maximum heart rates and quicker recoveries. A fast-beating heart, the study noted, can cause irrational behavior. Like many of her peers, Anderson believes more research is needed before police departments institute costly programs. “I do believe mindful- ness and meditation have the potential for people to perceive the world in more humane ways,” she says. “ You still need a rigorous study to show that translates into performance under stress.” What’s more, a lot of factors contribute to the shootings of unarmed civilians, and some of these factors are institutional rather than personal. “ When you think about police culture at the organizational [level], there’s no wonder you have excessive uses of force,” says former federal prosecutor Kami Chavis, director of the crim- inal-justice program at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University School of Law. “ Violence is an accepted way of dealing with certain situ- ations. There’s also this group loyalty: This is your brother, your sister, and you have to protect them at all costs.” That loyalty can be beneficial, she says, until it interferes with better judgment. Mindfulness could reduce unnecessar y vio- lence, Chavis adds—by helping officers self-reg- ulate, or by serving as a check against implicit bias. To prove it, though, “we’re going to need time and longitudinal studies.” Some departments are already starting to change their cultures. De-escalating conflict, for example, is becoming a higher priority. Mind- fulness training could help reinforce this, says Alex Vitale, a sociologist who coordinates the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College—for instance, if officers learn to carve out a few extra seconds to assess potentially dangerous situations. But it needs to be paired with that cultural shift. “Any discussion about mindfulness, about teaching officers tech- niques,” he says, “requires you move away from the dominant command-and-control approach: see a threat, neutralize the threat.” → August 2017 mindful 69