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Mindfulness Training Relieves Stress for Cleveland Police Officers

Police officers risk their lives on the job, and face traumatic situations like violent crimes, shootings, and death. These stressors can affect officers psychologically. A training program offered to Cleveland police aims to teach mindfulness and meditation to help deal with some of that stress, both on and off the job.

“A lot of the times when we’re experiencing stress, we may avoid some of the more deeply stored or held traumas,” mindfulness instructor Chris Checkett said. “And when we start to do practices like this, some of those experiences, some of those memories, some of those symptoms of PTSD, can begin to arise.”

All of the yoga instructors in the program go through a trauma-informed training, to ensure they are properly equipped to deal with any of the emotions the officers might experience.

Sergeant Stephanie Murphy began practicing yoga after her siblings were murdered. Dealing with the loss, in addition to the stress of the job, was emotionally difficult for Murphy.

“These things can really tax the mind,” Murphy said. “I’ve gone to calls where I’ve witnessed a 14-year-old shot dead in the backyard, bleeding out, things like that, those images don’t leave you. You don’t want to take that stuff home…. (Yoga) just totally allowed me to release all of that. I can’t say enough for it. It was actually a lifesaving thing for me to get involved in yoga.”

Murphy knew how much yoga helped her, and she wanted to bring the practice to others as well. She took the idea to her former partner, Chris Gibbons, now a detective in the Cleveland Police Employee Assistance Unit.

“It was a great idea on her part, but I really didn’t know what to do until I met Chris Checkett,” Gibbons said. “And he was already doing programs similar to what we did today, and we just modified it a little bit, make it more palatable for police officers, changed the language up a little bit.”

They partnered with River’s Edge, and with money from the Sisters of St. Joseph, started the yoga sessions for officers two years ago. Now, the training is supported by a mix of funding from the city of Cleveland and private foundations. They are looking for other funders to continue the program.

Officer Roger Jones says he’s used these techniques outside of the yoga studio.  

“One of the techniques is if you’re driving about, and you’re stopped at a stoplight, when you see the car in front of you, their lights come on, that would be your cue just to,” Jones said, taking a deep breathe before continuing. “Kind of just center yourself and take a deep breath and focus on that, and it really works… almost like a reset button.”

Jones says Detective Gibbons encouraged him to try mindfulness after he was involved in a controversial fatal shooting. Jones was skeptical at first, but now, he’s a believer.

“Everyone kind of thinks they know what yoga is,” Jones said. “I always thought it wasn’t the most macho type of thing to be doing. But I gave it a try, went into it with an open mind. A) because that’s just the kind of guy I am, but B) is because I was looking for anything to help move me along and bring me back to a normal place after being involved in something so traumatic.”

For Officer Chris Porter, being a police officer was a family legacy. His mom and stepdad were officers, and he and his brother joined the force too.

That brother was Officer David Fahey, who was directing traffic after two separate accidents on I-90 in January 2017, when he was struck and killed by a driver.

The accident was difficult for Porter and his family. He was cleared to go back to work, but then he began experiencing anxiety attacks.

“My heart would race, I could feel like my body would get warm, my palms would get sweaty, and for no cause. I wasn’t scared of anything, I had no specific concern, an dthat was probably the biggest issue for me,” Porter said. “I’m very literal, I’m a problem solver, and I’m like, well how do I solve this problem, when I can’t pinpoint what the problem is?”

Porter says since he started mindfulness training, he’s stopped having anxiety attacks, and it’s helped him deal with his brother’s death in a healthy way.

Detective Gibbons says he hopes officers embrace practices like this as healthy alternatives for dealing with stress.

“When I came on the job in ‘97, if I would’ve tried to introduce this program, I would have been laughed out of whatever room I was in, trying to do that,” Gibbons said. “But officers are a lot more open to it than they used to be.”

He says the stress police officers face causes shorter lifespans and higher rates of burnout. His grandfather was a police officer and died before retirement. His father was a police officer and lived 25 years after retirement. Gibbons hopes to live even longer than that. Mindfulness training is an effort to reduce burnout on the job and allow officers to live longer and healthier.

So far, about 270 officers have gone through the training program. Gibbons’ hope is to have everyone participate, but since the program is optional, he knows not everyone will.

Still, Gibbons says police culture is changing.

“The younger officer, their approach to the job is different,” Gibbons said. “They show up with a little more equanimity than I did. They’re shifting more towards a guardian rather than a warrior.”

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158