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Combating Stress in Police Work and Preventing Crime, Terrorism, and War

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Published in Police Writers

By: John Theobald, M.S.
Former N.Y.P.D. Officer and Former Professor of Criminal Justice at the New York Institute of Technology

With: David Leffler, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Center for Advanced Military Science (CAMS)


Introduction

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Between 1987 and 1988 a number of Brazilian state governments introduced the Transcendental Meditation - program to their military police. More than 26,000 police officers of all ranks were instructed. Military Police work is often dangerous and extremely stressful. Extensive scientific research shows that, through the Transcendental Meditation program, practitioners experience greater calm, clearer perception, broader comprehension, greater alertness, and faster reactions. The Transcendental Meditation program complements police officer training.

In 1965 I was a member of the New York City Police Department, assigned to a specialized anti-crime unit. In this capacity, I saw firsthand the types of stressors police officers were subject to, and the maladaptive ways in which many dealt with them. I subsequently left the department and returned to college and then graduate school. I eventually started a criminal justice program through the continuing education department of the New York Institute of Technology. The program grew, and in the 1970s reached an enrollment of 12,000 police officers from various police agencies across the New York metropolitan area.

At that time it was becoming increasingly clear that the stress factor in police work was manifesting in high rates of divorce, alcohol abuse, suicides, and other acting-out behaviors. Having experienced it firsthand, I was determined to seek some method that could help ameliorate this situation.

I began to research the various stress-reduction methods available. The Transcendental Meditation - program appeared to be the best approach because it was widely available, could be practiced anywhere at any time, and had unparalleled success at addressing these personal problems faced by police. Research indicated that Transcendental Meditation (TM - ) practice could help alleviate the negative effects of stress. It was clear that the TM technique would also increase awareness of potentially dangerous situations, preparing anyone for any possible outcome.

Shortly after learning the TM technique, I noticed the marked reduction in my own stress levels, and decided to make this opportunity available to the students in the college program. It was only later, when many police officers were practicing the TM technique, that I fully realized how beneficial it truly was.

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I arranged through centers in the ten metropolitan counties to teach any police officers who wanted to learn. At this time, college courses were offered in various police precincts and other locations throughout the New York Metropolitan area. Introductory TM lectures were offered at some of these locations, with interested officers going to their individual TM centers to learn the practice. Word spread to their associates and about 6,000 police officers learned to meditate.

Feedback from students was received for many years, both in the college program and, in some cases, years later, by individual police officers who said they were "still TM-ing." Comments from students consistently indicated overwhelmingly positive results. One of the most common reports was an increase in their shooting scores. Others reported feeling more aware, especially in life-threatening situations. This is important because in an effort to protect and save lives, law enforcement officers may sometimes resort to using deadly force.

For example, there was a story of an officer and his partner who were called to a situation in a very dangerous part of New York City. While walking in an alley, they were ambushed. A shot rang out, and his partner fell wounded to the ground. This officer drew his revolver and quickly shot five assassins, killing four and disabling the fifth. He later reported if it were not for his regular TM practice, he would have been killed. Despite the overwhelming odds against him, the policeman said he was able to maintain his composure under fire. He skillfully and accurately shot his weapon during this dangerous and highly stressful situation. (The revolvers used by New York area police at that time could only fire six rounds, so the situation was much more critical than it would be in modern times where weapons can fire fifteen or more rounds.)

Police officers must be able to function in the present moment on a daily basis. Effective police work depends on what's thought of as "street sense" or intuition. Police have to be more aware to read these subtle street signs. At the same time, they should not be overwhelmed by memories of previously stressful experiences; they must not overreact to situations. The TM technique removes deeply rooted fatigue and stress. The nervous system is strengthened and calmed. The mind no longer overreacts to old memories, which no longer have the same stressful influence. TM practice helps police officers survive these situations. They remain calm yet vigilant on the job.

One clear example of the ability to recognize subtle cues in the environment is the phenomena of microexpressions. Microexpressions are brief, involuntary facial expressions people exhibit according to the emotions they are experiencing at the moment. These expressions usually occur in high-stakes situations, where people have something to lose or gain. Israeli police and security, as well as TSA officers in the US, are being trained to recognize these subtle expressions. Unlike regular facial expressions, microexpressions are difficult to fake. They are the same across various cultures. Researcher Paul Ekman expanded a list of basic emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions, not all of which are encoded in facial muscles. These emotions are amusement, contempt, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride, relief, satisfaction, pleasure, and shame. They are very brief in duration, lasting only 1/25 to 1/15 of a second. Obviously, if a police officer or a soldier in Iraq approaches a person, his ability to read the situation quickly and accurately is a matter of life and death. Does the person have a gun or a bomb? Is the person setting up a crime or a terrorist act? All this information needs to be processed in a moment's time. The ability of the TM technique to reduce stress and increase calmness and alertness gives officers the ability to accurately and more intuitively read these microexpressions.

Gaining a Competitive and Strategic Edge on the Beat

Chart illustrating the significant improvements in health and discipline experienced by the officers and cadets practicing the Transcendental Meditation - (TM) program in the State of Bahia, Brazil

This chart illustrates the significant improvements in health and discipline which were experienced by the officers and cadets practicing the Transcendental Meditation - program in the State of Bahia, Brazil. These improvements resulted in improved community relations as measured by a dramatic increase (1,206%) in the number of positive reports received by the Police Department from the citizens of Salvador.

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Such anecdotal reports of increased performance as well as decreased indicators of stress appear to be backed by extensive scientific research. For instance, studies documenting the benefits of the TM program show that police officers could gain a competitive and strategic edge on the beat. A study showed that speed, agility, reactions, coordination, endurance, and perception improved after learning the TM program. In other studies, three months of practicing the TM technique resulted in subjects showing significantly increased field independence, i.e., increased ability to focus, increased stability of spatial orientation, broader comprehension, and increased resistance to distraction, as compared to controls. In other words, police officers can maintain a sense of the whole situation, while focusing in on a critical aspect of it, without being distracted.

Other research has measured a greater ability to assimilate and structure experience, improved memory and learning ability, increased creativity, and greater autonomic stability. Among the improvements are enhanced neurological efficiency, faster choice reaction time, improved self-confidence, increased self-reliance, and greater inner control. Holistic growth has been indicated by psychophysiological means, such as measures of increased global EEG coherence, and through psychological tests of intelligence, moral reasoning, and personality. (References to the above mentioned research are available in an online paper originally published by India Defence Consultants.)

Dr. Frederick Travis, Director, Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management, published an article about the potential benefits of the Transcendental Meditation program for those in law enforcement in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (pp. 26--32, May 2009). In the article, entitled Brain Functioning as the Ground for Spiritual Experiences and Ethical Behavior about the potential benefits of the Transcendental Meditation program for those in law enforcement, Travis concluded that his "research has indicated that practice of the TM technique leads to increased frontal brain integration, faster habituation to stressful stimuli, and higher moral reasoning." He asserts that inner experiences during TM practice enliven frontal coherence, which builds global circuits to place individual experiences in a larger framework. In this vein, spiritual experiences could provide the inner armor to protect police officers from the noxious effects of stress and negative experiences.

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http://www.StrongMilitary.org
Dr. David Leffler, a United States Air Force veteran, is the Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Military Science (CAMS). David served as an Associate of the Proteus Management Group at the Center for Strategic Leadership, US Army War (more...)
 

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