Becoming a Mindful Cop
by Jon Carson
Most of my life, I dreamed of becoming a police officer and most of the things I did in my life were geared to attaining that goal. By Sept of 2000, I had achieved what I had so much wanted, believing that the profession I was entering would create not only peace for myself but for the public that I served. As part of my role, I engrossed myself in the concepts of the law and deeply believed that I was making a difference by putting the “job” ahead of most other things in my life. Living and breathing police work was my existence.
However, there was another side to this job - one that no one ever talked about, a piece that was never addressed for me – the potential for trauma. In January of 2009 I was sent to a call – a call that would forever change my life; not just my views about my job, but my views on humanity itself. It was about 7:30 am in the morning when I crossed that threshold forever.
I was dispatched to a call involving a young women who had just given birth to a newborn baby. The circumstances involving the baby’s birth were hard to process, but that is not the story I’m sharing today. The baby was given CPR by myself and a female paramedic, and a pulse had been resuscitated in our efforts. We did all that we could and performed to the abilities that we had been trained. But eventually we fell short and the baby passed away soon after arriving at the emergency room. I heard the news in disbelief.
This watershed moment shook my soul. It would forever change the way I looked at life and my role as a police officer. It also led me on an incredible journey traveling through a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and navigating the stigma around mental health and our many flawed approaches to it. By the late part of 2013 , I had become a vocal advocate for mental health awareness within my country (Canada) and brought much needed awareness to the issue.
That year, I was also handed a copy of Mindful Magazine that surprisingly had a police officer, Lieutenant Richard Goerling from Hillsboro Oregon, on the cover. He was presenting a possible solution to what might exist as one of the biggest problems I see in emergency services, which is a mental health crisis. After I read about how Lieutenant Goerling used mindfulness practices to help him cope with the stresses of his job, I became more and more intrigued and started my own practice. The changes that I started to see in myself were not immediate, but with practice I began to see through the haze of trauma and regain some clarity.
Later the following year, I had another life changing moment that involved a really bad accident. For the eighth time in my life, I had suffered a concussion. Knocked out for almost 9 hours and suffering some memory loss, the neurologist prescribed a holistic approach to help me heal. One of the recommendations was an hour of meditation a day. At that point I was already practicing but much to my surprise, I was able to stretch my existing practice even more and search inside for some answers. That daily hour of meditation helped me heal the physical and mental trauma that I had experienced.
When I was first introduced to mindfulness, I felt like a salmon swimming upstream. But fortunately since then, I have been able to lean into the uncomfortable areas of my work and look internally to create cultural change not only in myself, but in the ones around me.
We have been led to believe that the strong, stoic police officer we see in movies or on TV - the one who can describe gruesome scenes without a shred of emotion - is the epitome of what policing should be. Only in the last few years has policing started to embrace the vulnerable cop or the cop who will show emotion. Our expectations of front-line emergency responders isn’t realistic. The dogmatic approach to dealing with trauma and waiting for pathology to set in before treatment begins is deeply flawed. And while getting together with a qualified medical professional is very good and a departure from where we were, what I discovered is we still haven't addressed the real issues that surround our work. Our environment is ruled by chaos, whether internally or externally. The anger and cynicism that result put us on a path of being even more disconnected from the communities we serve.
My journey into mindfulness has lead me down a path of being at peace and comfortable in my own skin, not masking my true inner emotions, but rather touching them directly and using that as a way to lead with love and compassion for all human beings. Leading with a sense of connection and human consciousness could change everything about police work. If we embrace the landscape of vulnerability, we can be better then we were yesterday.
In that light, we need to train law enforcement to perform better not only in the physical aspects but also in the mental aspects of their work. We need to train officers before trauma happens and provide a new generation of officers with the skills and ability to look internally and resist the urge to shy away from feeling uncomfortable. We need to quit attaching ineffective labels - such as “warrior” or “guardians” - that so many put on us, including our own. And we need to take a step in the direction of being humans again and treating all we come into contact with as humans, just like us.
Policing is at a crossroads, and to reach performance optimization and resilience, we need to navigate away from the easy-to-tell story of Post Traumatic Stress and into a new path of growth! Self-awareness is the key to combatting the inner dialogue that is the cause of so much pain. Emotionally-intelligent self awareness can lead us on a path of being there for those who suffer, as well as providing ourselves with much-needed self-compassion. And by learning to be present NOW, in the moment, we can better recognize our own internal state of being and help the fellow human beings we were meant to protect. Being present in the conscious moment can allow us to connect and interact at a completely different level, one that is more heartfelt.
This work is happening. In my law enforcement community, almost 2200 new police recruits and regular members have been trained in mindfulness practices. Even better: there are a number of ongoing trainings that are currently taking place utilizing mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence skills.
Recently, I was at a conference where Dr. Dan Siegel said that “consciousness is necessary for change.” We are in a time of a gigantic shift in humanity and policing. I believe that moving forward, police officers are becoming more conscious of the deep impacts we have on our communities. They need us to be that change.
Jon Carson is a Constable with York Regional Police and assigned to the Training and Education Bureau – Academics Unit. He is currently assigned to handle the delivery of Crisis Intervention Training, communications, recruit training and the coach officer course. He recently has begun the process of implementing Mindfulness Based Resiliency Training within his organization, with the motto “Train before the Trauma”.
Coming from his own place of experiencing PTSD in 2009 he experimented with a number of different treatments but it was not until 2014 when he suffered a really bad accident and a concussion that he found Meditation. Through research and investigating with his training partner, Sgt Norm Wray, they have found a way to create a culture change within policing through the many benefits of Mindfulness and living in the present moment.
His Crisis Intervention program was acknowledged in 2014 with a Canadian Armed Forces Commendation for its work with members of the Military and recently in April of this year his mindfulness program was recognized by the Intercultural Dialogue Institute of the GTA based around based on three criteria: “Altruism”, “Dedication” and “Community Involvement”.