The first MEL story was also one of our most meaningful. It was a profile of police lieutenant Richard Goerling, who continues to travel the country in hopes of convincing more and more police departments to teach their cops mindfulness. He believes the benefits are twofold: 1) It’ll help calm them down in the field (where some prominent, highly questionable uses of force have started a national debate about policing in America); and 2) It’ll help calm them down at home (where the stress of the job leads to high rates of substance abuse and divorce). It’s been slow going — being a change agent from the inside is thankless drudgery — but little by little, his mantra is beginning to spread.
“If I had a police department, I’ll tell you right now, we’d have all these mindful yoga warriors running around,” Richard Goerling, a lieutenant with the Hillsboro Police Department in Oregon, told me when I first profiled him. “And we’d be a bunch of badass cops that were working with kindness in the field and ready to open the can of whoop-ass.”
Throughout our handful of conversations — over the phone and during the couple of days I spent shadowing him in Oregon — Goerling was prone to saying strange and interesting things like this. But such affirmations were fitting for someone who occupies a strange and interesting role within the world of law enforcement: He’s a meditating cop who sees mindfulness as a potential key to fixing a damaged police culture (“We are broken,” he said of his fellow cops), and he’s embarked on a mission to train cops to meditate, wherever police departments will have him.
As stories of cops killing or injuring unarmed civilians dominated the news cycle over the course of the past couple years, I became interested in what types of radical solutions could be applied to help change police culture — beyond affixing every cop with a body cam. When a McKinney, Texas cop was caught on camera in 2015 body-slamming a 14-year-old girl in a bikini, his lawyers claimed that stress had set him off. This was what led me to Goerling, who argues that officer wellness (or the lack thereof) is an overlooked issue that contributes to cops losing their cool.
By the time we met up, Goerling had already helped convince Hillsboro PD to pay for employees to learn meditation, after one of their own cops lost his cool in dramatic fashion — he took his family hostage and had a shoot-out with his co-workers. When I visited Hillsboro, Goerling was in the process of proselytizing: We traveled to the town of Bend, Oregon where Goerling lead a training with local cops. In the 18 months since, Goerling says his trainings have only continued to spread — to police officers in Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts; Emeryville and El Cerrito, California; and back to Bend for five more days of training.
“Just this month, we wrapped up training 60 police officers from various Portland Metro agencies in eight weeks of mindfulness as part of an National Institutes of Health [NIH]-funded research study,” Goerling writes when I email him for an update. “On a preliminary look at the data, we see a reduction in the levels [of the stress-induced hormone cortisol], reduction in alcohol use and reduction in aggression among police officer participants.”
Goerling is in the process of applying for a new NIH grant that would train 300 officers from Portland and Seattle in mindfulness. He’s also attempting to foster partnerships with other large municipalities — Denver, Dallas, Boston and the Bay Area to name a few.
So among all his chill is still a considerable amount of hustle. But he’s sure it’s all about to pay off — and that he’s being taken more seriously than ever before. Or as he puts it, “We’ve entered a tipping-point zone, where more and more police (and fire service) leaders (at all ranks) are opening up to the science, application and efficacy of mindfulness training.”