The following article by Dr. Sarah Sayeed, ICNY’s Director of Community Partnerships, was published today in the Huffington Post. It can be accessed here.
Incidents of police violence and discrimination against people of color evoke our raw emotions — pain, frustration, fear, hopelessness and anger. Sometimes our emotions overwhelm us. But they can also help energize us and fuel our work for social change. As I work to navigate my own emotional landscape, I’ve started to think more about the feelings of police officers, including during police encounters.
Neuroscience tells us that that human beings can feel afraid, anxious and mistrustful when we sense danger. Under pressure, our brains call up mental shortcuts to quickly understand reality and make rapid decisions about whether to fight, flee or freeze. The amygdala plays a crucial role in our assessments of threat and danger, but it can lead us to over-react by giving us false or inappropriate cues. It can rely on implicit stereotypes that lead us to downplay critical information. Whether implicit biases cause emotional responses or vice versa is not clear, but the two are statistically associated. We also know that when human beings are afraid or in a sense of danger, they are less likely to consciously harness their pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps us think long-term and choose wisely.
If neuroscientists are right, then police officers by virtue of being human, have slow prefrontal cortex response under high amygdala arousal. But we set the bar higher for their behavior. We expect them to resist the impulse to flee or freeze. We expect them to fight, and do so fairly. The law grants police officers leeway in the amount of force used when they have “reasonable fear” of harm to others. But effective policing requires fears to be used in conjunction with reason. Clearly, officers must be trained to sift through multiple cues, including implicit and possibly inappropriate stereotypes in a very short time frame. They must be in tune with their own fallibility and false judgments. They must be able to deal with high stress, high fear and high anxiety and still make good decisions — in other words, purposefully channel their pre-frontal cortex during high amygdala arousal. But given human neurobiology, is this even possible?
Recent cutting edge science show the positive impact of mindfulness training on emotional regulation, ability to read emotions in others, and the actual grey matter in our brains. Mindfulness involves building equanimity under pressure, using breathing techniques and non-judgmental awareness of feelings and thoughts. Mindfulness can help reduce our rapid and often unconscious reactivity to our own and others’ emotional states. Through regular training, we learn to sift emotional data and consciously choose a response. We modulate amygdala arousal and re-engage the pre-frontal cortex to make better decisions. Recent research shows that mindfulness may even help overcome race and age biases.
While mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism, its techniques have been embraced by a range of secular professions, from mental health to Silicon Valley, including the Navy SEALs. It is also finding its way into police departments, such as in Oregon, and the criminal justice system as a whole. When practiced over time, mindfulness may help police officers develop their ability to more accurately read the emotions of suspects, discern threats, withstand high pressure encounters, reduce on the job stress and reduce the role of personal biases in policing practice. By strengthening non-judgmental awareness of emotions, mindfulness can strengthen empathy and compassion in police-community interactions. It may ultimately reduce unwarranted use of excessive force.
Mindfulness training may seem a “soft” solution in the face of enduring structures of inequality and racism. But for a profession fraught with danger as is policing, it may be part of what is needed. We owe it to Eric Garner, Mike Brown and so many young men whose lives have been lost at the hands of police, to rebuild, brick by brick, a justice system whose cracks seem gaping. We need greater accountability and greater independent oversight of police. We urgently need to reform broken windows policing strategies that target people of color and disenfranchised communities.
At the same time, long lasting system change is intertwined with individual change. Since we hold officers accountable for their behavior, we must not give up on individual-level interventions. Applying a neuroscience framework and mindfulness training can help policing improve from the inside, from the heart and mind. This matters because our individual behaviors are at least in part driven by our biological make-up.
The great Muslim Sufi poet-philosopher Rumi noted that “we are the mirror as well as the face in it.” In the current crisis of police accountability, our system of justice is a reflection of our collective relationships. We may seem to be individuals in the mirror, and certainly our biases lead us to believe we are separate. Our anger and our binary discourse reinforce the walls between us. But Rumi tells us this an illusion. One area we are undoubtedly the same is in the neuroscience of our hearts and brains. Acknowledging this common humanity, we may be able to change the dynamic of victimization and aggression to inch-by-inch restore confidence and trust between police and community. Mindfulness can help police. And us.