Just a couple of months into his tenure as head of the Oregon City police department, Jim Band got the call every chief fears: One of his officers had been shot in the head and killed.
A tragic loss of life is bad enough, but Band knew it could also devastate his department—driving some officers to drink, or leading others to quit. Luckily, his department had a better option for dealing with grief.
Two days after his officer died, Chief Band was in his office, exhausted from endless media interviews about the fallen officer, when he heard the familiar sound of heavy barbells hitting the floor. On the other side of the police station, in the CrossFit gym that Band had helped establish, officers were finishing up a heavy group-exercise session. Band looked in the gym door and saw cops who had been on the scene when their fellow officer died.
“I just see this calm on their faces,” says Band. “That’s why we’re doing this. So when guys are dealing with this stuff, they’re in here doing something healthy that’s dealing with their stress. They’re not in a bar drinking.”
Oregon City’s CrossFit program is just one example of efforts by police departments across the country to improve police officers’ mental and emotional wellness.
Because of the uniquely stressful nature of the job, police are at an increased risk of physical and mental disorders including hypertension and obesity, as well as depression, sleep loss and even suicide. Uncontrolled stress can also impair decision-making and sometimes leads to greater impulsivity or aggression on the part of police.
Mitigating stress, therefore, can be the key to keeping officers healthier, happier and more effective. And some experts believe it might also play an important role in avoiding violent interactions between police and civilians, which have been so destructive to police-community relations in recent years.
Police department stress-management, resilience and wellness programs include a variety of tools: meditation and yoga, cognitive training, spiritual exploration, tablet apps, even therapy dogs. Some departments, like Band’s, choose a physical approach.
The benefit of CrossFit—which emphasizes short, high-intensity workouts using a wide variety of heavy barbell or bodyweight movements—is that it’s totally consuming, says Band. “It completely cleans your mind out and you’re just thinking about fighting through the workout.” He says CrossFit has helped his cops become more confident and physically and mentally strong.
Band started his gym about six years ago, around the time Pacific University psychology professor Michael Christopher was establishing a mindfulness meditation program for police officers not far away in Hillsboro, Oregon.
With the help of a police lieutenant and a yoga teacher, Christopher adopted the widely used Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, which is based on Buddhist practices, to create an eight-week meditation-based approach to managing police stress. The core of the practice is a body-scan technique, in which officers learn to simply observe physical sensations without judgment. The practice improves officers’ ability to respond appropriately to stressful situations, keeping calm and avoiding impulsive reactions.
Christopher says a study he conducted showed improvements across the board in measures of participants’ levels of depression, anxiety and resilience, including an overall reduction in the stress hormone cortisol. He says he also saw indications of reduced aggression and is seeking funding for a study looking at the program’s effect on implicit bias. According to Christopher, meditation can help officers “take themselves off of autopilot,” to respond to situations with clear eyes instead of with prejudice or bias.
The Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas is also finding promising results with a new mindfulness program for police officers, as well as a brain-training program, called Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART). Jennifer Zientz, the center’s head of clinical services, says she has been working with Dallas police department leadership to “help them to take in information in a more strategic way, so they can think smarter, not harder.”
SMART teaches strategies for managing the avalanche of information officers face every day, helping them to stay focused on the big picture while accomplishing day-to-day tasks. Zientz says she’s found that helping people think and work more effectively lowers stress, anxiety and depression. That may be because strengthening the parts of the brain that handle cognitive reasoning helps “down-regulate” the limbic system, where stressful emotions lie, she says.
Rabbi Cary Friedman, a police trainer and chaplain, says police departments often overlook the fact that most officers choose the job almost as a spiritual calling. The vast majority of police start out with a deep desire to help people, but that impulse is often not addressed or supported by police departments, which are focused on the practical and technical aspects of the job, Friedman says. Without spiritual support, according to Friedman, police officers quickly deplete their reserves and can become embittered, frustrated and resentful. That can lead to alcohol abuse, broken marriages and “curbside justice.”
Friedman says police departments call him in to find ways to support officers’ higher ideals, leading them through exercises that help them find motivation through a commitment to God or to an ideal of justice that can help them weather the stresses of the job. He helped develop a course based on these principals for the FBI’s National Academy.
John Marx, executive director of the Law Enforcement Survival Institute, says a successful officer-resilience program has to cover multiple quadrants: physical well-being, cognitive functioning, plus emotional and spiritual health, which are often overlooked.
Marx says he started thinking and writing about police officer stress after he retired from 23 years on the force and a friend, another former cop, killed himself. “We have a huge suicide problem that no one wants to talk about.”
Marx says he’s been advocating for better resilience training for officers for a long time, and he’s starting to see some positive shifts. “The good news is that the profession and our society in general recognizes this is important,” he says. “But we have a long way to go.”