Vol. 76, No. 4External submissions

The mindfulness difference

Training ahead can help police recover later

Officer Eric Russell, a former U.S. Marine, participates in Mindfulness Based Resilience Training during the Hillsboro Police Department's mindfulness pilot project in 2013. The training is a shift toward preventative intervention. Credit: Darci VandenHoek, Hillsboro Police Department


First responders are in the business of trauma: human suffering, tragedy and dark choices of human behaviour that on occasion require members of the force to confront the worst of violence against humanity.

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Stepping into the center of this trauma, as members do on a daily basis, has inherent risks. The tactical risks are understood and mitigated with precision and art of war. The human risks, however, are widely experienced and narrowly understood.

A look at contemporary and historical police literature on occupational stress sends a message that police trauma is a formidable opponent. News and entertainment media sensationalize, glorify and sometimes demonize the outcomes of violence confronted by police.

These force encounters are not the singular source of traumatic event for the first responder. Often, the trauma visits in more subtle exposure to human suffering. This continuum of trauma exposure is further exacerbated by time. Over the course of a career, human suffering, chronic occupational stress and traumatic events batter members.

The consequences are little understood, both seen and unseen, as they manifest in the first responder and their family, the organization, and the community. To be clear, police occupational stressors are a clear and present danger to these groups. It is, however, the nature of the job of policing to confront risk. Seemingly, we step into these occupational risks with, at best, resignation and acceptance that trauma will have a negative impact.

Adept leaders in policing and related disciplines have blazed the trail for organizational response to trauma. From these innovative leadership efforts came the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) model and various post-critical incident protocols that many agencies have adopted over the last decade. In some cases, legislative bodies have mandated these protocols. In other cases, organizations create and model best practices.

The CISM model has evolved over the last several decades and provides important post-trauma intervention for first responders and others affected by critical incidents. This is an instrumental part of public safety organizations and must continue to evolve into the 21st Century. Despite its importance, CISM remains a reactive intervention.

Police leaders and community members have an opportunity to lead collaboratively and shift toward preventative intervention. While no simple solution to occupational stress exists, changing the construct is possible. With this paradigm shift comes new possibilities of resilience, hope and enhanced health and wellbeing. This is achieved with a simple principle: train before the trauma.

Fitness of mind, body and spirit

A resilience model that trains skills in resiliency can have a significant positive impact on officer wellness and on the outcome of the police-citizen encounter. The theme to this integrative resilience model is the focus on the connectivity of mind-body health.

The following dimensions are addressed: preventative mental health, cultivation of cognitive fitness (mindfulness), physical fitness, social wellness and spiritual fitness.

While many definitions exist, in this context, resilience can be defined as "the ability to cope well with high levels of ongoing disruptive change; to sustain good health and energy when under constant pressure; to bounce back easily from setbacks; to overcome adversities; to change to a new way of working and living when an old way is no longer possible; and to do all this without acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways" (Siebert, 2005).

At the foundation of this resilience model is mindfulness. Developing keen self-awareness through mindfulness-based training provides a platform for personal and professional development, healing and self-actualization that few other interventions bring to the police culture.

Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment" (Kabat Zinn, 1990).

In the late 1970s, Zinn developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) model at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Time and again, studies have demonstrated the success of MBSR at improving the health and wellbeing of those who have experienced this eight-week training model, even when students don't continue a regular mindfulness practice.

This secularized meditation practice provides an opportunity for sitting quietly with focused attention on the breath, without judgment of "right or wrong" in how nor in what thoughts come up during sitting. So simple, it can be the most difficult thing to attempt.

Credible benefits

The encouraging reality for police leaders is the plethora of scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of mindfulness training, across disciplines. This includes some remarkable studies in training mindfulness to U.S. Marines by Elizabeth Stanley and Amishi Jha (2009). One need not look very far to find credible and relevant information that supports the value of mindfulness in policing.

Cultivating a practice of mindfulness offers untapped possibilities for police officers and resonates with the warrior tradition of "grounded compassion and skillful action" (Strozzi-Heckler, 2003). This self-awareness skills training develops into situational awareness training, which develops into cognitive performance training. These health and performance benefits translate into both the human and organizational calculus: healthier people in uniform and a return on investment for the organization.

In an effort to change course toward a preventative model, the Hillsboro Police Department (HPD) began a bold pilot project to bring mindfulness training to police officers in 2013.

The HPD, working with Pacific University and the Hillsboro Stress Reduction Clinic, developed the Mindfulness Based Resilience Training (MBRT). Modelled after Kabat Zinn's MBSR, this training was an eight-week course where officers and professional staff (non-sworn) attended class at the yoga studio once weekly for two and a half hours.

Additionally, at week six, the course included an all-day silent retreat. A certified MBSR teacher from the Hillsboro Stress Reduction Clinic taught the MBRT courses. Three separate cohorts were offered from fall 2013 through spring of 2014 with 48 students actually finishing the course.

Research conducted by Pacific University demonstrated improvements in a number of dimensions: perceptions of administrative stress, operational stress, sleep, pain management, anger (emotion regulation), reactivity, burnout, resilience and acting with awareness. This is a groundbreaking study that paves the way for further research and training with mindfulness in policing.

It's notable that mindfulness training positively impacted the officer's sleep management. With sleep deprivation, a significant health and risk management issue in policing, this is a hopeful finding. Mindfulness training as a preventative intervention stands to develop necessary skills for members to thrive, not simply survive.

Several years of collaboration led to the creation of the Pacific Institute on Community and Organizational Wellness at Pacific University. This institute will deliver ongoing MBRT for regional first responders, conduct further research on responder and community resilience, and sponsor regular leadership summits for dialogue and innovation.

In addition to mindfulness training for the individual responder (MBRT), the institute will develop mindful leadership training for police leaders. Training leaders to find the headspace for the art of leadership is critical for healthy first responders and healthy organizations. Further, HPD will be developing mindfulness training in short, consumable blocks that are integrated into police tactics training.

Training the individual responder, training mindful leaders and cultivating a practice of mindfulness, in small ways, throughout the arch of the police officer's work lends powerful authenticity to a police organization. This is fertile ground for community building.

Learn, collaborate, experiment

There are a few key ingredients and recommendations to consider in moving forward. Take the time to read relevant research on mindfulness training in the military. Then perhaps subscribe to one of the many magazines that regularly write on mindfulness. Read a book about mindfulness skepticism turned support; there are many contemporary options at bookstores. Mindfulness will rapidly be seen as science rather than sentiment.

The success of the HPD training was due to collaborative leadership. Getting outside of the police paradigm and building multi-disciplinary partnerships is imperative. Collaboration makes evolution possible. Without this teamwork and infusion of ideas that bring some level of discomfort, little worthwhile happens.

Building relationships with academia, mental health professionals, physical fitness experts, yoga teachers and meditation teachers is important. Build these relationships and cross-pollinate cultural competencies. Teach the yoga teacher and the professor to be competent in police culture and to understand as best possible what members face in the field, and back at the office. Stretch yourself to sit on the mat and learn their world. This will pay dividends, and make you healthier.

Build an ad hoc, collaborative and multi-disciplinary team and experiment with mindfulness training. Start small. Use a phone app; there are several very good ones. Use a podcast from a university or other meditation center. Do something. Measure it. Assess and try again. Stay awake to the possibilities.

Mindfulness nurtures the warrior soul. No contemporary police training steps so far outside the comfort zone of culture to bring such hope for healing deep inside the culture. Lead forward.


Kabat-Zinn J. Full Catastrophe Living. Delta Publishing; New York: 1990.

Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2003). In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching awareness disciplines to the Green Berets. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Siebert, A. (2005) The Resiliency Advantage. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler

Stanley, L. & Jha, A.P. (2009). Mind Fitness: Improving operational effectiveness and building warrior resilience. Joint Force Quarterly, 55.

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