Can mindfulness help cops be better, more humane cops? Only if they’ll let it | Book excerpt

From “The End of Bias: The science and practice of overcoming unconscious bias”

August 23, 2022 6:00 am

Jessica Nordell writes, "Police routinely deliver the worst news a person can receive." Photo by Chad Davis.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “The End of Bias: A Beginning” by Minnesota writer Jessica Nordell, who examines how we can eradicate unintentional bias. The paperback is now available. Order it from Magers & Quinn or other fine independent booksellers. This is part 2. Read part 1, which is about the insidious ways fear can stoke racial and other biases. 

Around 2003, a Hillsboro, Oregon, police sergeant named Richard Goerling observed something he calls “the asshole factor” — routine aggression directed at the public. Goerling even noticed this abrasiveness in himself, wondering at his own lack of kindness when responding to calls. Acting aggressive toward the people they’d sworn to protect was, in Goerling’s words, “a performance failure,” so he began reading widely about the science of performance. Specifically, he looked for approaches used by people who had to perform flawlessly, like athletes. Elite performers, he learned, used mind-body practices like yoga and meditation. Intrigued, he joined a multiweek mindfulness course.

It’s hard to imagine more incongruous images than a mindful meditator and an American cop. The meditator sits monklike, with closed eyes and a relaxed, beatific smile, bathed in soft light and wearing loose, flowing robes. The militarized officer scans their environment, tense and frowning, strapped into a bulletproof vest. And sitting in his mindfulness courses, Goerling found it deeply uncomfortable to do what was asked of him: to feel his emotions, his physical sensations, and his breath. Cops are trained to be alert to external events; they call it “situational awareness.” They’re rarely asked to look inward. The intimacy of the sessions was, to Goerling, kind of embarrassing. But maybe that was okay, he thought. Maybe there was a way to make this more palatable to cops. Because he had begun to see a link between the aggression he witnessed and what was happening in cops’ minds and bodies.

The job of a police officer involves being sent, with technological efficiency, to some of the most difficult situations happening in a community at any given time: drug overdoses, child abuse, assaults, shootings, burglaries. Police routinely deliver the worst news a person can receive, knocking on doors at two a.m. to tell parents their child has died in a car crash. They are asked to respond to situations in which the people who know what’s happening have decided they can no longer manage it themselves. Over time, the work begins to erode officers mentally and physically. Fatigue sets in, bodily pain, sleep disorders, irritability.

A 2020 study of a large urban police department found that more than a quarter of officers screened positive for depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, or other severe mental distress. In 2019 in the U.S., more died by suicide than on the job. Quite simply, Goerling said, “We’re broken.” These impairments are further exacerbated by a professional culture that Goerling calls “a toxic drip” of hostility, intimidation, denial of suffering, and intolerance of emotions.

One year turns into five. Five turns into ten. One study found that for each additional year on the job, officers were 16% more likely to use force. Another found that clocking extra duty hours increased officers’ chances of exhibiting serious performance problems, like using excessive force, unnecessarily pursuing individuals, or discharging their firearms without reason.

The Metropolitan Books trade paperback edition is available now.

This damage directly affects how cops interact with citizens: Chronic stress makes police more likely to make errors and poor decisions. Stress can lead to sleep disorders; officers with sleep disorders are more likely to explode in anger at citizens. Chronically stressed officers are also more likely to be involved in deadly shootings.

In particular, chronic stress affects how the brain processes threats. A person’s fear response involves multiple parts of the brain, including the amygdala, which helps detect salient threats in the environment and generate feelings of fear and anxiety, and the prefrontal cortex and other areas, which modulate a person’s reaction to bring it in line with reality. When a person is in a state of emotional regulation, these responses are balanced. But prolonged stress increases the activity of the amygdala, facilitating the growth of neurons in this region while diminishing the strength of the prefrontal cortex. This throws off one’s ability to regulate emotions. A chronically stressed police officer may be faster to feel and respond to fear. Because heightened amygdala activity and a weaker response from the prefrontal cortex are also associated with aggression, they could also be more prone to violence.

These stresses may also affect cognitive control, the ability to override one’s impulses and act with deliberation. Having reserves of cognitive control helps one interrupt habitual responses. And cognitive control is decimated by chronic stress. An overloaded mind, drained of resources, with diminished cognitive control, will more  likely rely more on mental shortcuts such as stereotypes. Officers in this state will likely have a harder time preventing racial stereotypes from affecting their actions. Chronic stress, in other words, creates a perfect storm for bias.

Indeed, studies suggest that impaired officers do more racial profiling. One analysis of over ten thousand stops by Oakland, Calif., police found that when officers were stressed and fatigued, they searched and handcuffed African Americans at higher rates. A study of police recruits, too, found that those who were more fatigued showed more bias when performing in a simulation: They identified an unarmed Black suspect as armed and decided to shoot.

Connie Rice’s diagnosis, after speaking with eight hundred officers from the LAPD, was a department of “crushed spirits carrying badges and guns.” Goerling echoed her sentiment. “The dirty secret,” he said, “is that we don’t have healthy organizations and we don’t have healthy people.” And the community bears the brunt.


Would it be possible, Goerling wondered, to fix this brokenness? Might there be a way to systematically change officers’ behavior by changing their minds and bodies? Another police officer had asked this question in the early 1990s. A Wisconsin police sergeant named Cheri Maples had faced homophobia and harassment from colleagues, and after years of job-related stresses, she found herself becoming callous and cynical. Seven years into her career, she attended a meditation retreat given by renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. In the weeks and months afterward, she thought people around her were becoming kinder. Then she realized it was she who was changing.

On a domestic violence call, a scared woman told Maples that her husband would not let her fetch their child. They’d just broken up, and he was blocking her from their agreed-upon pickup. At the time, Maples’s department had a mandatory arrest policy for anyone acting threatening; normally, she would have handcuffed him for disorderly conduct. But Maples asked the woman go wait in the car and then knocked on the door. An angry six-foot, three-inch man opened it. Maples was five foot three. She explained she was there to listen and help; she told him she could see how much he loved his daughter. She then suggested the girl go to her mother while the two of them talked. He agreed. Maples sat down with him on the couch. The man started crying. Defying her police training, Maples held him in her arms.

Three days later Maples ran into the man in the community. He gave her a bear hug and told her she had saved his life. Maples later reflected that her practice changed the way she viewed the people she encountered. What I started to see “was a suffering human being who needed my help.”

Mindfulness has generally been studied as it benefits the individual; it has not been thoroughly researched as an interpersonal or social practice, so studies of mindfulness as a tool for overcoming bias are still in early stages. But early research is promising, finding that it seems to help deconstruct automatic reactions.

Some of the most powerful research on this inner work examines its capacity to open new avenues of human connection. These studies explore a related form of meditation called compassion, loving-kindness, or “metta,” meditation. While mindfulness meditation focuses on seeing the present moment clearly and without judgment, loving-kindness meditation focuses on compassion for the self and others, on caring for and wishing to help those who suffer. This deep concentration on extending care to others can create a profound feeling of interconnectedness. It can also promote a feeling of equality among people. 

Neuroscientist Helen Weng found that people who had trained in compassion meditation were more altruistic toward a victim of an unfair social interaction compared to a control group. Other research presents another tantalizing possibility. Mindfulness scholars have long described the individual separate self as a fiction. One study recruited experienced loving-kindness meditators and examined their brain responses after being shown images of themselves and images of others. Compared to a control group, the meditators’ brains, over a particular region, responded more similarly to the two kinds of pictures. Loving-kindness meditation may, it seems, diminish the firm distinction between you and me.

Richard Goerling, the Hillsboro officer, did not think mindfulness would solve all the problems of policing. But, he thought, perhaps it could make better behavior possible. Perhaps other officers could, like Cheri Maples, encounter the public with compassion and awareness. 

Goerling tried to bring it up to his Hillsboro supervisors. The response was curt. “Are you fucking kidding me?” they asked. “False religion,” said some. “Devil worship,” said others. But Goerling persisted. He and a small team, including researchers from a nearby university, began running eight-week courses — mindfulness training refitted for police officers.

The curriculum included standard sitting and walking meditations and practice with attention and focus. To make it more culturally acceptable, there was a little less interpersonal sharing and a little more scientific evidence. Officers practiced bringing mindfulness to the simple task of putting on their uniform and paying attention to the sensations of stress in their bodies while listening to 911 calls. Over the next year, dozens of officers from around the state of Oregon enrolled in trials the team ran to find out whether these practices would make a difference in their bodies — and their minds. He began running mindfulness retreats for first responders, with partners from Bend, Oregon. 

In 2015, Goerling and the team published the results of their research. After eight weeks of mindfulness training, officers improved in nearly every aspect of mind and body health studied. They reported less anger, less fatigue, and lower levels of burnout. They were less impulsive when stressed. They reported finding it easier to manage their emotions. A replication confirmed the findings, also noting that officers became less aggressive and more psychologically flexible.

These were small studies, and it still wasn’t clear how all these changes would actually affect the way cops treated the community. But the neighboring city of Bend, Oregon, had, around the same time, also been testing out a similar approach to officer wellness, with yoga, movement, and meditation classes. And the city was starting to see results.

Injuries and medical costs went down, and performance began to improve. In the six years after the program started in 2012, citizen complaints as a proportion of all calls dropped by 12%. The Bend Police Department also reduced its use of force. Compared to 2012, the number of times force was used in 2019, as a proportion of all calls, decreased 40%.

In spring in Bend, a cutting wind snaps over the cold, dun-colored ground. Clear, hard buttons of resin stud the tall conifers, scattering sunlight like crystals. The Cascade Mountains rise in the distance — North, Middle, and South Sister. On the west side of town, an unbroken line of bicyclists in neon Lycra round the curves of winding, manicured streets.

I had traveled to central Oregon to join a couple dozen first responders for one of Goerling’s three-day retreats. Officers were women and men, and of all races and ethnic backgrounds, all from western U.S. states. Some were there voluntarily, including a few Bend officers who had not yet attended a retreat. A large portion were there under duress; they were the last stragglers in a department out of state that now required it of everyone. The oldest attendee was a portly, graying, fifty-something; the youngest was a skinny kid from Californiajust out of training, wearing a nubby, fleece-lined sweatshirt, blinking uneasily.

Goerling is tall and eager, white, with a shock of white-gray hair and an open, unlined face. As he spoke, he sometimes jerked his shoulder, nagged by an old injury. “We’re not here to be weirdos and burn incense,” he said. “We’re here because what we’re doing isn’t working well.”

The cops wore sweatpants and sweatshirts, their chairs pulled into a scraggly circle. A mustached lieutenant wore a T-shirt that said THROAT PUNCH. There was Big M, with a brush of black hair, and another in a red hooded sweatshirt, lolling back in his seat, eyes focused on the ceiling. A patrol officer wore a T-shirt showing a grim reaper handing a little boy a skateboard. 

Goerling began by making the case for mindfulness. He ran through the stats on police injuries, illnesses, trauma. Hearing about the ways police were damaged, a couple attendees traded annoyed glances. “Your skepticism is welcome,” Goerling said. “Your cynicism is welcome. If you think this is a waste of time, that’s okay. I’m quite convinced it’s not.” Some officers who had been forced to attend were quick to make that clear. One sergeant said, plainly, “I don’t want to be here.” An officer who’d been on patrol for 25 years said he’d rather be home with his cats. (When I expressed surprise at the length of his tenure, he smiled. “I exfoliate,” he said.) A few denied that this training would have any utility for them. They already knew how to be resilient: it was to be “bulletproof” — that word again. Immune to damage. When asked to share their experiences of stress, the mustached lieutenant said flatly, “I don’t get stressed. I give stress.”

Others were intrigued. Patty had just had a baby, she said, and had no idea how to be a parent. Maybe she thought this could help her be a good role model for her son. The 50-something just wanted to feel better in his body. “You may think you’re fine now,” he said to the younger attendees, “but believe me, it adds up.” A 911 dispatcher with dark-lined eyes said her stress manifested in headaches so painful she needed prescription medication. She had been skeptical, but now she wondered whether this could help her get off the meds.

The next morning, we ran through breathing exercises and practiced paying attention. Goerling interwove the practices with studies, explanations, detailing the physiological benefits of mindfulness — the decreased inflammation, the lower stress levels. When we practiced body awareness, I noticed an ache in my neck and a chill across my skin. We worked on focus and attention, mentally counting up from 1 and down from 30 at the same time, alternating: 1, 30, 2, 29, 3, 28. Patty closed her eyes. Big M fell asleep.

The crew began asking questions. “What if you see something horrific? Will this help?” a young man wanted to know. “We’re not meant to see that.” His voice was urgent; he was thinking about something specific, but he didn’t share what it was. No one asked. Goerling nodded and offered a quote from a trauma expert: “Your body has been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place.” This practice, he said, allows people to be in trauma and recover from it, and also grow in compassion and empathy. Later, someone asked if mindfulness coul hurt. Could someone become so self-aware they freeze? Goerling tried to reassure that these skills would help them envision a greater set of potential outcomes when entering a situation, so they would act with more agility, not less.

We practiced being aware of body sensations by holding an ice cube in one palm. Goerling asked us to close our eyes and describe the sensation to ourselves. If we label and describe what is happening to us, he said, we can step outside it and see it more objectively. We can see reality as it unfolds instead of being trapped inside it. The cubes melted in our hands.

Afterward, we shared our observations in small groups. Some texted and smirked like 14-year-olds in detention. Others described the progression of pain from tingling to burning to numbness.

During an afternoon break, a partner of Goerling’s named Scott Vincent arrived with some dim, mood-setting floor lamps. He, too, had at first been skeptical of mindfulness and inner-oriented practices. “I wasn’t into namaste, I wasn’t into yoga. And I’m a pretty hardheaded guy.” But, he said, the practice changed him. And it changed how he saw the public. After decades of this work, you can start to see people as objects, he said. “You’re a crackhead, you’re an asshole, you’re a doper,” he added, pointing to phantom suspects between us. “But it grinds you. It grinds both ways.”

Later that night, some of the cops mutinied, lashing out at Goerling. “You’re talking down to us,” a sergeant said. “You don’t know me, you don’t know what I’ve been through. You’re saying cops are unhappy, we’re unhealthy, you’re saying there’s something wrong with us.” Goerling listened. Here was everything we’d been speaking about: the anger, the anxiety, the defensiveness and threat. I could see Goerling trying to slow this encounter down and breathe, just as he’d been trying to coach the officers to do.

“I didn’t mean to suggest there’s anything wrong with you,” Goerling said slowly. “But that’s what you’re saying,” the sergeant insisted. He was getting angry now, and his voice turned hard. He stared at Goerling. “I’m as happy as I can be!” he yelled. The words echoed against the high ceiling. Then the lieutenant said loudly, “I think if you need this, you’re weak. Go be a teacher.”

The air felt combustible. “Okay,” Goerling said. “Let’s take a break.” If they didn’t feel they were getting any benefit from the sessions, they were free to leave. I asked the young man in the fuzzy jacket what he was going to do. He didn’t know, he said. He looked miserable. He eyed the lieutenant who had said mindfulness was for the weak. Then he followed him out the door.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jessica Nordell
Jessica Nordell

Jessica Nordell is an award-winning author, science writer and speaker. Her first book, "The End of Bias: A Beginning," shortlisted for the 2022 Columbia Journalism/Lukas Prize for Excellence in Nonfiction, the 2022 NYPL Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize, is the culmination of fifteen years of reporting and writing on the subject of bias and discrimination and how to solve it, for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the New Republic.