The cumulative stress and trauma of policing puts police officers at elevated risk of stress-related physical and mental health disorders. Exacerbated by cultural factors that promote stoicism and emotional control, this stress can also contribute to family and relationship problems, high levels of burnout and cynicism and disastrous consequences for community members, particularly people of color. In addition to broad systemic changes that are needed to reform policing, a fundamental cultural shift is needed in terms of how police officers relate to emotions and other inner experiences. Research in our Center has investigated the benefits of mindfulness training for the health and well-being of police officers, but this has come at the exclusion of considering the impact on communities negatively affected by police bias, aggression and violence. We are carefully re-examining what this work looks like going forward so that future work in this area serves to benefit these communities.
The law enforcement profession has a pressing need for preventative, evidence-based programs to support adaptive responses to the stressors of policing. The absence of these preventative approaches has negative consequences for the health and well-being of police officers and disastrous or deadly consequences for communities of color and marginalized groups, who suffer the most from reactive and biased police actions and decision-making that are exacerbated by unaddressed stress. We are interested in understanding what factors promote resilient responses to stress in some police officers, whether we can train and cultivate these skills and qualities of mind through an adapted mindfulness training program and how this work can thus benefit the health and well-being of communities of color.
In partnership with local law enforcement agencies (the Madison Police Department, Dane County Sheriff’s Office, and UW–Madison Police Department), we have conducted research on an adapted 8-week mindfulness training program for police officers. Through this training, we invite officers to create additional space to skillfully respond to challenging situations instead of automatically reacting. Mindfulness practices encourage officers to experience thoughts, sensations and emotions with curiosity and compassion, rather than avoidance or suppression. Introducing these ideas and practices in a culturally appropriate group setting helps normalize this way of relating to one’s experiences, which we hope will contribute to broader cultural change within policing.
Our initial pilot study established the feasibility and acceptability of this training and provided preliminary evidence that a mindfulness training program adapted for police officers can reduce symptoms of posttraumatic stress (Grupe et al., 2020). In a follow-up randomized controlled trial funded by the National Institute of Justice, we are studying the impact of this training on self-reported stress and health outcomes, hormonal and inflammatory biomarkers and physiological and sleep data collected during a week of work.
More than just a stress reduction or relaxation technique, mindfulness and related practices promote qualities of awareness, compassion and prosociality that we believe can transform police culture and improve police officer performance for the benefit of marginalized and oppressed communities. Although this work has been conducted with the intention of enhancing wise action in police officers, we have not yet collected any data to put this belief to the test. We also have not meaningfully engaged communities of color and marginalized groups who experience stress and trauma from over-policing, bias and police violence, and we acknowledge that as a result we have prioritized the well-being of police officers over people of color. We are carefully re-examining what this work looks like going forward, and we are committed to involving individuals and groups representing local communities of color in this process so that future work in this area serves to benefit these communities.
Reference: Grupe, D.W., McGehee, C., Smith, C., Francis, A.D., Mumford, J.A., & Davidson, R.J. (2020). Mindfulness training reduces PTSD symptoms and improves stress-related health outcomes in police officers. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology. doi:10.1007/s-11896-019-09351-4.