The Chronicle Review

Taking Mindfulness to the Streets

Neuroscientists explore whether resilience training can help cops in crisis

Larry Towell, Magnum Photos

Police officers prepare for confrontations during the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota in November.
January 22, 2017
"Finally, a police officer looks inside himself. He sees the callouses growing thick and hard over his ability to feel. He reconsiders his own motives with his newfound cynicism. If he is honest with himself, he sees how tarnished his ideals have become, how hard his heart is. The last disappointment is with himself."
— Mark Baker, Cops: Their Lives in Their Own Words


In 2006, Brant Rogers offered a free yoga class to police officers at his studio in Hillsboro, Ore. No one showed up.

A few days later his phone rang. The caller introduced himself as Detective Richard Goerling of the local police department. "I want to talk about yoga for cops." he told Rogers. "I want you to help figure out a way to stop the hurting.’"

Goerling was intent on finding techniques that might help police officers cope with the job’s endemic pressures, which can cloud judgment, fuel unconscious biases, and manifest as rage or panic — or a combination of the two. Emotionally charged states can create the kind of deadly chaos that has made headlines in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Tulsa, St. Paul, and a list of other municipalities, large and small, that grows by the day.

"American policing is in the midst of a crisis," says Goerling, who is now a lieutenant in Hillsboro. "But nothing is going to change until we teach people why they behave a certain way in certain situations. We don’t teach techniques to change that behavior. We just wait until cops are broken, until tragedy strikes, and then we do an intervention."

Over the next several years, Goerling attended trainings for cops and firefighters, interviewed military personnel and civilian first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder, and took Rogers to various police trainings, where the two talked to officers about building resilience. Along the way, they pored over the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester who in the ’70s developed an evidence-based program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction involving meditation and yoga.

Their goal was to develop a protocol to help officers become more cognizant of their thoughts and bodily responses in various emotional states and surroundings. "At the end of the day, that will bring the humanity back into policing," Goerling says. "That will naturally lead to healthier cops and more skillful cops. And when force is deemed necessary, it will be used out of compassion, skillfully administered, and appropriately measured."

In 2013, the two teamed up with Michael Christopher, a psychology professor at Pacific University, and put a handful of officers through an eight-week program they called Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training, based on Kabat-Zinn’s methodology. In post-training surveys, participants reported feeling less burned out and better equipped to deal with stressful situations, both at work and at home. They also felt a heightened state of awareness when awake and consistently logged longer, higher-quality periods of sleep.

These results led the team to pursue a larger study at Pacific, funded by the National Institutes of Health, involving 30 officers and a control group of the same size. The final data from that $230,000 exercise are still being analyzed, but the preliminary results are similar to the pilot study and have encouraged a dialogue with police departments up and down the West Coast.

Ultimately, Goerling and Rogers know that for the ground to shift nationally, well-regarded law-enforcement agencies will need to work with high-wattage research institutions to demonstrate that mindfulness training is worth the cost in precious time and public money. "The first response is, of course, ‘What is this voodoo stuff?’" Rogers says. "But the more evidence we have, the more people will get interested."

The more you can train yourself to behave a certain way in a noncritical situation, the more embodied it becomes.
Enter the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Led by Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist Time named one of the world’s most influential people in 2006, the center recently began shifting its emphasis from pure research to applied science, testing its findings about neuroplasticity, mind-body medicine, and the mental-health benefits of mindfulness outside the laboratory.

Over the past few years, researchers at the center have designed video games to teach emotional literacy, worked with veterans to ease the effects of PTSD, and trained public-school teachers to bring meditation into the classroom. This fall they embarked on a pilot study with the Madison Police Department to determine if a mindfulness-based practice, similar to the training developed by Goerling and Rogers, can improve officers’ physical and mental well-being.

It’s a calculated risk that is sure to push Davidson and his colleagues into an already fiery debate about cops, the use of force, and race — subjects that encourage impassioned, inherently unscientific public dialogue. There’s also a chance that the center’s work, which is data-driven and painstakingly incremental, could be conflated with a larger, less-scientific mindfulness movement that is as nebulous as it is ubiquitous.

Davidson is expert at translating investigative results for general audiences, however. He’s proved particularly adept at creating excitement for projects among potential funders and like-minded peers. What’s more, the MPD, which is nationally recognized as a longtime leader in police reform, could prove the perfect public-facing partner.

"Historically, academia partners up with police leadership and there are very fine demarcation lines. ‘You do what you do, you nerds over there with glasses, and we’ll do what we know we need to do over here to get the job done,’" Goerling says. "The world is too complicated to think that way anymore. As we engage in this work, academia will have to be a policy adviser to the police, not just a research arm."

When Dan Grupe arrived at Wisconsin in 2008 to do graduate work in psychology, he began conducting neuroimaging studies to determine the impact of PTSD on veterans. Working with Davidson, he became fascinated by the tangible differences in the way soldiers — even those who had suffered the same traumatic event in the field — reacted when exposed to stress.

In the lab, where Grupe could measure blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, some men and women reacted within a normal range. Others were stuck in a state of hypervigilance. The brain region simply could not perceive the difference between safety and danger. The work was ultimately unsatisfying, however, because Grupe was getting snapshots of the brain only after it had been exposed to acute combat-oriented trauma.

After finishing his Ph.D., Grupe joined Davidson’s lab as a researcher, unsure of what to pursue next. When a Madison resident with ties to the Center for Healthy Minds encouraged Davidson to ask the MPD if it’d be interested in joining forces, Grupe grabbed the opportunity to become the project’s lead. "If you have a high-stress population like police officers, you can look at baseline measurements and then, knowing that there’s a pretty high likelihood that they’ll be exposed to some sort of traumatic event, follow them over time to compare the before and after," Grupe says.

During the first stage of the pilot study, two groups of 15 officers who’ve already shown interest in mindfulness techniques will complete an eight-week training using a modified version of the protocols developed in Oregon. They will learn practices like breath meditation (consciously inhaling and exhaling at a steady pace) and mindful movement, which could involve something as simple as taking a walk and paying attention to how the body functions in space. They’ll be asked to consider how their core values and principles do and don’t come into play in their everyday lives. And they’ll be encouraged to combat negative thinking with small acts of kindness.

If all goes well, many of them will learn to reflexively engage in a "mindful pause." "One officer who has a mindfulness practice already noted that a majority of the calls he receives are not life and death," Grupe says. "So when a call does come in, and before he flips on his lights and starts driving, he takes a deep breath and surveys where he’s at, which serves to center him. After responding to that call, he does the same thing. This is important because the more you can train yourself to behave a certain way in a noncritical situation, the more embodied it becomes. So, in a crisis moment when there is not time to pause, a healthier response is more implicit and automatic."

The study will yield a deeper data set than the one at Pacific, which, besides saliva samples taken before and after training to gauge the presence of cortisol, depended primarily on self-reporting. Grupe’s team will also include physiological measures to track things like heart and respiration rates, which give scientists a peek into the peripheral branches of the nervous system. They’ll also measure inflammation, which is a precursor to a number of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and depression, for which cops are at a particularly high risk.

If the first stage yields promising data over the coming year, the second phase will be larger, perhaps involving slightly more skeptical participants, and will include a control group of officers who don’t participate in the training. After all of that, Grupe hopes the center will have enough irrefutable data to enter a third stage, during which a number of other police departments around the country would agree to join the experiment.

The 65-year-old Davidson has been interested in spirituality and meditation since he was a Ph.D. student at Harvard. He met the 14th Dalai Lama on a trip to India in 1992, and he says their relationship — the two are in regular contact and see each other in person two or three times a year — has informed and inspired his personal and professional trajectory.

"His Holiness challenged me and asked why we were not using the tools of modern neuroscience to study qualities such as kindness and compassion rather than negative qualities of mind such as depression and anxiety," Davidson says on the center’s website. "I had no good answer, and on that day, I made a commitment to His Holiness and to myself that I would do everything within my power to help place these positive qualities on the scientific map."

Still, Davidson is constantly reminded that, for a researcher who collects hard data using cutting-edge technology, including positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the association with a living guru can be tricky.

In 2005, for instance, Davidson invited the Dalai Lama to give a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. To an outsider, it might not have seemed like a controversial move, particularly since a few years earlier Davidson had found, with the use of fMRI, that the brains of Buddhist monks morphed during long periods of quiet contemplation. Even so, hundreds of researchers attending the conference signed a petition protesting the Dalai Lama’s speech, arguing that his presence would both distract from other speakers at the conference and blur the lines between science and faith. "Who’s coming next year," one of the petition organizers asked a reporter from Wired. "The pope?"

Davidson is also aware that, while he and the 70 employees and 200 undergraduates working at the center see the world as a place to collect and analyze data, trading in the language of kindness, wisdom, and compassion runs the risk of trivializing significant scientific findings. This is especially true in an era when the term "mindfulness" has been co-opted by everyone from self-proclaimed, self-help healers to second-tier celebrities selling yoga mats.

"People trafficking in McMindfulness do concern me," Davidson says. "I have no reason to think they aren’t well-intentioned people. I think they are. But I think their relative lack of knowledge can end up reinforcing certain characteristics in people — self-centeredness and a fixation on achievement, for instance — that actually undermine well-being."

Still, he thinks the risk is worth it. "The behavior of police around the country is of concern to me, and to our community, and to communities everywhere," Davidson says. "We actually have the potential of developing a model here which could be of national significance, in no small measure because this is a very unusual police department with a strong reputation."

The MPD’s tradition of progressive policing can be traced back to the early 1970s. After violent student protests against the Vietnam War resulted in a fatal bombing at the university, town and gown tensions in the capital city were boiling over. "National Guardsmen lined Madison streets, tear gas wafted across campus, State Street store owners nailed plywood over shattered windows, and old-school cops in riot gear flatly refused to let protesters march," the Isthmus, a local newsweekly, recalled in an article about the era published in 2012. "Like J. Edgar Hoover, Madison’s assistant chief [of police] held secret files on prominent citizens."

Desperate for answers, in 1972 city leaders hired the young, reform-minded police chief David Couper. He immediately halted covert surveillance and developed "the Madison method" of crowd control, which involved creating safe zones for peaceful protest and is still used today on campuses and other public spaces around the country. He also worked to integrate the department, eventually mandating that one-half of new hires would be women and racial minorities. Most memorably, the MPD became an early adapter and proponent of community policing, a program designed to decentralize leadership and create opportunities for interaction between beat cops and the neighborhoods they patrol. That approach is now the national standard.

Today, according to Kristen Roman, until January MPD’s captain of community outreach (and now campus police chief for the University of Wisconsin at Madison), the percentage of female officers in the department is routinely one of the highest in the nation. Its demographic makeup mirrors that of the local populace, which has a substantial African-American contingent. Every officer has a four-year college degree and, in many cases, some postgraduate work. All of which creates an environment amenable to experimentation.

Yet the department has not been immune from the sort of tumult that’s widened the national divide between cops and the communities they’re sworn to serve — especially communities of color. In March 2015, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. This past June, Madison’s Common Council approved spending $400,000 to review the MPD. In anticipation of the vote, sitting Police Chief Mike Koval wrote a blistering blog post; the vaguely threatening rant, in which he said certain unfriendly council members were being "watched," prompted Isthmus editors to call for his resignation. Two weeks later a cellphone video emerged, showing an unarmed 18-year-old woman of color being arrested outside a local shopping mall; the officers involved were roundly criticized for using excessive force.

Ironically, Koval considers Couper a mentor and is a longtime admirer of Davidson’s work. So much so that when the Center for Healthy Minds approached Koval more than a year ago to ask whether he’d like the department to participate in a mindfulness study, he jumped at the chance. "I found [the MPD] extremely open and interested," Davidson says. "They not only wanted the meditation program, they wanted the serious research."

Roman says that despite recent events, the MPD is still uniquely positioned to take advantage of the study, both to improve its performance and to influence other departments around the country, just as it did during Couper’s heyday. "It sounds corny, but most people really do get into this line of work to help people, to make a difference in the community," Roman says. "So when that relationship is damaged, when the community is less appreciative and more overtly critical, that creates a whole different kind of stress, at a level that I’ve not seen in the 25 years that I’ve been doing this.

"It’s a vicious cycle. And I really think that cultivating our own resiliency and mindfulness could be a first step toward breaking out of that cycle."

David Schimke is an independent journalist and a former editor of Utne Reader magazine.