In the last year there has been a great deal of discussion about how to punish police officers who cross the line and engage in excessive force that ends in injury or death. But there has not been equally rigorous discussion of how to prevent such behavior in the first place.
Yes, there’s been talk of mandatory body cameras. But expecting body cameras to get at the root of the problem is like assuming security cameras are the solution to deterring bank robberies. Cameras don’t address the underlying motivations that may spur someone to rob a bank in the first place. As Eric Garner’s death proves, cameras are not the end-all, be-all when it comes to addressing why some citizens, many of them black, end up dead at the hands of police officers.
While reading various studies regarding what impacts police officer behavior, I was stunned to discover one highly underutilized solution that could make a difference—if only more law enforcement agencies, political leaders, and critics of law enforcement officers took it seriously: mandatory stress management training for officers. This training can include all sorts of coping mechanisms that some of us with far less stressful jobs have been told to try by our doctors—including yoga, meditation, working with a nutritionist, and regulating our sleep patterns.
Though I realize some of you are already rolling your eyes or preparing to fire off an incredulous tweet, consider this: The sleep patterns of truck drivers are considered a major safety issue, on par with drunk driving, regulated by officials and endlessly debated by Congress.
Yet while a truck driver can certainly be a danger to himself and others, at least he’s not licensed to carry a gun. More and more experts now believe that over-stressed, over-fatigued, over-worked law enforcement officers are a danger to themselves as well as others.
Not only is the suicide rate of police officers higher than the national average, more officers commit suicide each year than are killed by criminals. The overall average lifespan of police officers is 10 years shorter than the national average. Among the host of mental and physical health challenges officers have been found to have, sleep deprivation is a major one. According to the National Institute of Justice, police officers are significantly more likely to have sleep disorders than the general public. A whopping 85 percent of officers researched reported driving while sleep deprived. Now just consider what that means when that officer ends up in a tense situation in which he or she has to make a decision about how much force to use.
“I would speculate that there potentially is some correlation between officers operating at a high level of stress and the level of force that they use,” said Christian Dobratz, a retired detective sergeant in Minnesota who now teaches one of the country’s only collegiate-level classes devoted to educating aspiring law enforcement officers on stress management. According to Dobratz, fewer than 2 percent of law enforcement agencies have any sort of formal programming requirement for suicide prevention or stress management. Most simply have a “Let us know if you need help with anything” approach. That is until something terrible happens and then mental health help is no longer optional, and by that point it’s often too late.
To be clear, this piece is not intended to discount some of the other issues that may be at play when an unarmed civilian ends up dead at the hands of police officers; issues that are also worthy of addressing, including possible racial or class bias or abuse of power.
But if we’re honest, we can all think of moments when a lack of sleep, an argument with our spouse or partner, health problems, or personal problems caused us to behave in a way we were not proud of. We may have taken it out on a family member or a co-worker, snapping at him or her when doing so was unwarranted or unfair. Luckily for most of us, there is no imminent risk of someone dying at our hands when we have a bad day and our judgment is off. But for law enforcement officers, anything that clouds their judgment can spell the difference between life and death.
According to Lisa Wimberger, a nationally recognized expert on stress management among law enforcement agencies, adrenal fatigue—a glandular condition associated with chronic stress—is a major danger of working in law enforcement. “Adrenal fatigue can look a lot like chronic fatigue” and can be responsible for a significant number of emotional, physical, and mental health problems, she explained.
Wimberger went into great depth regarding how adrenal fatigue can wear down paramedics, first responders, soldiers, and police officers. An apt analogy, she said, would be: It’s not unhealthy for people to sprint sometimes, perhaps even daily. It is unhealthy, however, for anyone to sprint 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Eventually your body will give out.
But that is mentally what is happening to some police officers. This is what happened to one of her relatives. The emotional and psychological toll of being an officer ultimately destroyed his family. Afterwards, Wimberger began devoting her career to helping other officers avoid the same fate. She has now trained more than 1,000 police officers, FBI agents, and members of the Secret Service in “neurosculpting.”
Neurosculpting is technically a form of meditation, although most of the individuals interviewed for this piece recoiled at the mention of the word “meditation.” Neurosculpting “is a lot less sitting cross-legged and a lot more quieting the mind,” Wimberger said. But a 2012 study found meditation and yoga to play a notable role in reducing anger and stress among police officers in India.
Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, a retired officer who used to specialize in hostage negotiations, now travels the world teaching law enforcement agencies stress management techniques and said he doesn’t address meditation because it’s a tough sell to officers. Instead he focuses heavily on sleep, exercise, and nutrition. He emailed me from the FBI National Academy Asian-Pacific Conference on Terrorism in Queensland, Australia, where he was speaking on his book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. While he did not dismiss issues like possible bias in some of the behavioral failings of officers, he was adamant that there needs to be greater attention paid to the role physical and mental health play in officer related tragedies. “I use a model based on the physiology of what happens to a person who is required to remain in an elevated level of alertness for long periods of time (the cops call that Officer Safety),” he wrote. “It’s actually hyper-vigilance. It produces anger, depression, sleep disorder, [and] poor decision making, and adds to the development of PTSD.”
Christian Dobratz has firsthand experience with these symptoms. Before he began teaching a class on stress management for officers at Minnesota State University’s Mankato campus, he was a student of Lisa Wimberger. Dobratz had a breakdown 11 years into his career in law enforcement. He sought help and was able to continue his career, thanks in part to a supportive superior. But not everyone at the department was supportive. Dobratz explained that’s a huge part of the problem.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve found is it has to start with the leadership of the agencies,” Dobratz said of the importance of changing the culture in law enforcement to one in which officers are encouraged to be at their physical and mental best. “Officers are afraid, even if they feel they are slipping, of saying anything because they fear the department may try to force them out or it may affect their promotion.” Dobratz now considers sleep and meditation to be necessary health maintenance for law enforcement officers. He wants to see mandatory stress management in departments nationwide.
“It really has a profound effect,” Dobratz said of stress management regimes. “It had a profound effect on me personally.”
If you are a law enforcement officer or agency seeking more information about stress management training, please visit: neurosculptinginstitute.com