The Mindful Cop
By Steve Gladis, Ph.D.
While in the FBI, I worked with many law enforcement officers and agents. When making arrests, some involved a strong and hard approach. Others were more low-key. Without question, arresting a person can raise the emotional stakes for both the individual and the officer. Recently, videos have surfaced showing what can go tragically wrong during such emotionally charged encounters.
I learned a lot from my training agent, John, who later became my supervisor and, eventually, a professor of criminology. He always remained calm and maintained a sense of humor in difficult situations. Once, while trying to find a fugitive, we approached a neighbor about the individual’s whereabouts. John smiled, showed his credentials to the woman, pointed at his own picture, and said, “Have you seen this guy before?” The neighbor said no. Then, he put his credentials next to his face and smiled, as did the woman—who immediately became more cooperative.
John taught me how to be mindful—paying attention in the moment, on purpose, in a particular way, and nonjudgmentally.1 Of course, I did not know it at the time, but his simple, controlled, calming techniques de-escalated many potentially dangerous situations. While I am not comparing being an FBI agent to serving as an officer patrolling in a gang-ridden city or responding to an active shooter, the principles of mindfulness can help anyone.
In law enforcement we may approach situations while having an overly stern or even aggressive demeanor out of habit even when unnecessary. Such a “threat” can trigger the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction in the brain’s amygdala—its early warning system—and perhaps an overreaction in some people.2 Smiling calms others, breathing calms ourselves, and listening calms the situation, the trifecta to de-escalate volatile situations because these actions do not threaten anyone.3
If you are an authority figure—a leader or law enforcement officer—some people automatically see you as a potential threat until you show them otherwise. Smiling signals “no threat” through brain chemistry—especially involving mirror neuron cells—more quickly than other nonverbals.4 It offers the quickest way to relate to another person.
Dr. Gladis, a retired FBI special agent, conducts research, writes, and speaks on leadership and is an instructor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
- We are hardwired to smile. Babies even do it in the womb, as evidenced by sonograms.
- Children smile about 400 times per day, but adults do so only around 20 times.
- Mirror neurons allow us to “catch” smiling from others.
- Smiling proves beneficial for long-term health and correlates to a longer, more engaged life.
- It reduces stress, improves our work, and makes people want to be around us.
- The “Duchenne smile,” one that engages the muscles of the eyes, as well as those of the mouth, appears genuine and authentic.
- Smiling makes us appear more likable, courteous, and competent—the very basics of trust.
- Leaders who smile put people at ease, spread positive emotions, and create a relaxed environment in which people do their best work.5
Most adults, including police officers, do not smile enough even when they have reasons to do so. In law enforcement, the badge, gun, and uniform signal authority to people, many who do not like it.
To prove the power of smiling and overcoming the natural state of seriousness, especially in a new classroom of strangers, I often ask students to smile and greet at least 5 or 6 other classmates. Within seconds, the volume increases, and they start laughing and relaxing. It results in a humorous calming effect and students’ readiness and willingness to learn. Imagine getting a similar response in a potentially tense situation, instead of a “let’s fight” reaction. I once asked a class of savvy law enforcement officers what percentage of the time they needed a stern, command-and-control demeanor based on the situation. They answered that it was needed only 5 to 10 percent of the time. Therefore, maybe we should use a simple smile 90 percent of the time to start a conversation.
We must remain mindful. Naturally, our brains either ruminate about the past or have anxiety regarding the future, which we can blame on the overly protective amygdala.6 The quickest way to escape the mental “roller coaster ride” and become mindful is to focus on our breath, a constant physical reminder to keep us in the present moment.7
Many medical schools in the United States offer training to help people learn the practice of being present.8 Originally developed to combat chronic pain, mindfulness has grown into an international movement to help people cope with stress.9 The impressive research results have convinced many leading companies to start their own internal programs.10 People should gain a useful understanding of mindfulness.
- Breathing is automatic; however, leaders who understand how to control it through meditation and mindful breathing will be more effective.
- Research-based, highly successful programs exist that encourage mindful breathing and consistent practice.
- Mindful breathing helps us move from mental rumination about the past or anxious thinking concerning the future to a more thoughtful, relaxed state.
- Regularly sitting or lying quietly starts the practice of mindfulness.
- The impact of mindful breathing appears in our personal, team, and corporate health.
- Leaders who learn mindful breathing help themselves and others around them become better people.11
“Law enforcement officers face
challenging situations and consistently must remain calm during stressful events.”
Many major corporations teach mindful breathing to help relieve stress in the workplace.12 Almost every measure of productivity and job efficacy improves when people meditate regularly. When practiced daily, mindful breathing through meditation eventually will help the brain learn not to overreact, particularly in an emotional situation.13
One can imagine if all law enforcement officers stopped and took a few deep breaths before beginning an interview, making an arrest, or entering any difficult situation. Perhaps if most criminals had waited only a few seconds before overreacting, many of them would not end up in jail. Fortunately, some prisons also provide mindfulness instruction.14
In situations requiring effective listening skills, the Speaker-Listener Technique, developed by three psychologists at the University of Denver, may prove helpful. Often used by the best communicators, psychiatrists, negotiators, and others who have to converse in difficult, often emotionally charged situations, this powerful technique proves effective in interactions where listening is critical, such as those encountered by leaders and law enforcement officers. It aims to make any conversation constructive, clear, and safe. The technique focuses on the listener fully understanding the speaker’s concerns and involves specific rules about taking turns listening and talking. The listener first attempts to understand, not solve, the speaker’s problem by asking questions, rather than offering solutions. Leaders and officers can use the technique especially well in conflict or in supporting and effectively communicating with another person.15
- Listening involves an important gift that leaders or officers can give―their valuable time and attention.
- The most successful leaders possess the skill of listening.
- Effective listening consists of presence, technique, and practice.
- Leaders demonstrate presence by becoming fully engaged, focused, and not distracted when talking with people.
- Despite an impressive amount of data about the importance of listening, some leaders in business, medicine, and other professions have poor listening skills, which can have dire consequences.
- Unfortunately, people may have a difficult time becoming more focused listeners due to technology intrusions (e.g., e-mails, texts, phone calls) vying for their immediate, often distracted, attention.16
Listening shows respect for another person. It elevates the individual’s status, which leads to mutual positive and respectful action. Answering the question, “What is going on here?” is what most police officers do naturally at a disturbance or crime scene. However, special attention is drawn here to potentially hostile situations where the use of force first might seem the best approach, but, in retrospect, an opportunity for de-escalation through listening existed.
Mindful policing is taught and studied as a useful alternative approach for police resilience and stress reduction. An ongoing collaboration between Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, and the Hillsboro, Oregon, Police Department on mindfulness and officer resilience received a major grant in 2015 from the National Institutes of Health to continue and document the ongoing joint Mindfulness-Based Resiliency Training program. This research may change training for law enforcement professionals.17
One high-profile leader introduced mindfulness not only to her former department, the Madison, Wisconsin, Police Department, but also to the entire criminal justice community in the city. After serving as a law enforcement officer in her agency for 25 years, an assistant attorney general in the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and the head of probation and parole for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, she now serves as a consultant to other communities on the subject of mindfulness and criminal justice. Her work also includes cofounding the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. She tells a dramatic story about using mindfulness in a domestic dispute and how that revelation changed her approach to such encounters.18
Law enforcement officers face challenging situations and consistently must remain calm during stressful events. Smiling, breathing, and listening offer effective means to cope with toxic environments and circumstances. Research shows the positive impact of practicing mindfulness, which should become a significant part of law enforcement training and leadership development. It must become so for the sake of the officers whom we ask to do the toughest job under the most difficult circumstances, as well as for the sake of those with whom they interact every day.
“Smiling calms others, breathing calms ourselves, and listening calms the situation....”
Mr. Gladis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.