Police officer Richard Goerling wasn't happy with the way he was handling the public.
“I’d leave a radio call thinking, ‘Hmm, I probably could have been more kind’ and really questioning whether or not the abrasive approach was an appropriate response,” Goerling told KUOW's Bill Radke.
He turned to yoga and meditation. It worked.
So in 2013 he started a meditation and mindfulness training program for fellow officers in the Police Department in Hillsboro, Ore., outside Portland.
“Police officers are suffering,” said Goerling, a lieutenant. “There are so many stressors to being a police officer today. The job is incredibly complicated. The organizations are complicated. The legal climate is complicated, and our relationship with our public is complicated.
"We know we exist in this crucible.”
How police officers interact with the public has been under a searing spotlight. Ferguson, Mo., was roiled by protests over the killing of Michael Brown. In Baltimore, the first trial in the death of Freddie Gray has begun. In New York, the city paid a $5.9 million settlement over the death of Eric Garner, an asthmatic who gasped “I can’t breathe” as officers held him in a chokehold.
Goerling said problems with overaggressiveness by police are “largely driven by the level of suffering behind the badge.” He said stress is constantly eroding “our emotional intelligence skill set” and hurting decision-making in the field.
He was recently awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effectiveness of meditation for cops, including how it affects bias and the biochemical markers for stress.
“I want to cultivate an empathetic warrior culture … that allows a police officer to see someone holding a sign that says ‘I can't breathe’ and instead of responding with some defensive statement, it’s really an interrogative: Tell me more about that,” he said.
He says police forces have traditionally not offered training that considers resilience of both body and mind.
“We really weren’t looking holistically at the whole person,” he said. “I started looking at what do professional athletes do and what do elite performers in the military do. And that led me to yoga, and I explored yoga, which led me accidentally to mindfulness meditation.”
But how do you get cops to meditate?
“You have to bring some credibility as a police professional so that we can even have some dialogue,” Goerling said. “Then we have to bring some science. We talk about neurobiology and how meditation is in fact training based upon science.”
It helps, he said, that police officers are already familiar with some of the concepts in meditation, even if they don’t know it. Take the “tactical breathing” or “combat breathing” techniques employed on the firing range.
“I like to tell police officers that meditation really is nothing more than tactical breathing,” he said. “But what we’re doing with mindfulness is we’re actually teaching them how to do it.”
But how would such training change interactions with the public? Goerling offered an example of officers responding to a domestic violence call.
“We’re driving fast, we’re riding with sirens: It’s game on. And mindfulness teaches us to mitigate the stress response that occurs with that particular activity. I'm going to breathe deeply. And I'm going to pay more focused attention right now in this moment while I drive this 2 1/2-ton police vehicle through my community,” he said.
Arriving at the scene, “I'm much more focused and engaged and skillful at dealing with what I'm addressing. I'm capable of listening more clearly and hearing what's happening.”
Produced for the Web by Gil Aegerter.
This segment originally aired Nov. 30, 2015.