A Mindful Approach
Counselor Educator Brings Federal-level Training to Statesboro-Bulloch County Law Enforcement
While completing his undergraduate degree, counselor education professor Richard Cleveland, Ph.D., worked as a campus officer to help pay for school. “I remember one of my first calls was a response of an elderly woman who fell down a flight of stairs and cracked her head open,” he recalled. Cleveland said he was the first one on the scene, and his first response was fear. He froze at the sight.
“It felt like forever, but looking back on police logs it was maybe a minute,” he explained. “But for me, I felt so ashamed—like I wasted so much time.” Thinking back, Cleveland used this experience to explain how the body reacts in stressful situations.
“The more stressed we get, the more we lose fine motor skills,” he explained. “Firing a weapon safely and effectively requires a large amount of cognitive processing and fine motor skills.”
That is part of the basis of Cleveland’s new research. Receiving a seed grant from the College of Education (COE), Cleveland’s pilot project, “Mindfulness-Based Tactical Instruction,” explores how mindfulness practices or attention to thoughts and feelings will help officers mitigate the psychological effects of high stress when engaged in tactical situations. The project is a collaboration with the College’s counselor education program, Georgia Southern University’s Public Safety Department, Statesboro Police Department, Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, and the United States Pentagon Force Protection Agency. COE’s Jonathan Hilpert, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Curriculum, Foundations and Reading is contributing his expertise in data analysis.
Currently participating in a national work group, Hilpert is looking at stress levels for students taking exams. This, Cleveland explained, is a great link to the mindfulness research he is completing, as they can use similar strategies and methodologies for students in high-stress situations that they are using for the tactical practices for the officers.
“We are already thinking about how in the future to apply this to Georgia Southern students and, specifically, counselor education students as they are navigating intense counseling sessions and choosing their words and reactions,” said Cleveland.
The Training: How Does It Work?
The training includes pre- and post-tests with officers wearing a wrist sensor that takes several measurements including heart rate and electrodermal activity (EDA). EDA measures the involuntary changes in the electrical properties of the skin such as sweat glands, which are thought to be an effective measure of stress in the body.
The Pentagon Force Protection Agency’s involvement initially began through informal conversation about helping trainees manage stress.
The Agency’s interest grew, however, as Cleveland’s project developed to include data looking at stress levels from EDA measurements, as currently federal trainings monitor stress primarily with the use of heart rate.
Tests are conducted in the Statesboro Police Department’s simulator, a fully-interactive, computer-based training that can change based on participants’ reactions. Cleveland and Hilpert look for data such as proper response to a situation; how long it takes for the officer to draw their weapon; length of time to pull the trigger; how many shots are fired; whether the target is hit and how many times; and stress level throughout the exercise. This provides a baseline for officers prior to entering training.
After the baseline data, officers receive one or a combination of trainings including standard department training, stress inoculation and/or mindfulness training.
Stress inoculation includes a safety briefing and five-day field-range experience that expose officers to drills and live-fire scenarios that place stress on the mind and body.
“Firing a weapon safely and effectively requires a large amount of cognitive processing and fine motor skills.”
“It’s exercise after exercise to help them draw their weapon out, discharge that weapon safely and effectively so that when they arrive at that moment they decide to use lethal force, however long it takes them to wade through the stress, then they can engage,” said Cleveland. “That’s the stress inoculation training.”
There is yelling, movement and introductions of safety malfunctions such as misfires or jammed guns. Even though officers train for these situations, they often do not know how they will react until such incidents occur. Ensuring that they can react properly over and over again is vital.
“Think about the neurons in the brain,” explained Cleveland. “What gets fired, gets wired. Repetition trains the brain.”
Mindfulness training has officers practicing present moment awareness and how to attend to all the incoming stimuli they face in a high-stress situation.
“My hope,” Cleveland said, “is to give them tools to navigate that stressful environment, to use the best skills that they have for making decisions on safety for themselves and for everyone that they are serving and protecting. If they do have to use lethal force, that decision has been arrived at through all their cognitive abilities available rather than just a knee-jerk reaction.”
Cleveland says this training cannot teach officers how to avoid stress. No one can. It is about fielding that stress and returning to a state in which you can use all cognitive and fine motor abilities to make a decision and react.
“It doesn’t help the stress magically go away,” he said. “They can’t cheat the body. The hope is that the skills help them get back to functioning faster. It’s more streamlined because they know what to expect.”
Mindfulness training includes combat breathing which focuses on regular, measured breathing as oxygen deprivation and lack of blood flow can cause negative physical effects on the body. Other examples of mindfulness skills include present moment and non-judgmental awareness whereby officers can attend to a situation without jumping to conclusions or using preconceived notions or responses.
After officers participate in training, they complete a post-test in the simulator to compare with the original scores of their pre-test data. The pilot has 10 participants from the partnering law enforcement agencies that are training with Cleveland, Hilpert and trainers from the Pentagon Force Protection Agency who complete trainings similar to these annually for federal agents.
Materials from the training, including curriculum and protocols, will be shared so that local law enforcement can continue this type of training when possible. “I want to see that the project can serve as a resource,” Cleveland said. “To be able to bring this type of training down to local, rural law enforcement is very rare.”
Training for Cleveland’s pilot project is ongoing during spring 2018.
— Cinnamon Dowd