A lot about policing has changed in the 12 years Aaron Oden has been with the Arlington Police Department. In that time, he’s seen a rise in national scrutiny of police misconduct, increased oversight mechanisms and a shift in the way officers are expected to approach the job.
“There’s an arduous process to becoming a cop. … You are excited about coming into this job and naive,” he said. “You wanna help people, catch bad guys, and you don’t understand the impact of the things you’re gonna see and potentially what you’re gonna have to do.”
The stress of the job builds up. Without an appropriate release, it can be deadly.
“You see the really bad interactions with police on social media … but 99% of the time, when that comes from a traffic stop, maybe they weren’t wearing a seatbelt, you’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Oden said. “The seatbelt that day happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Enter mindfulness training. Lauren Wessinger, a mindfulness instructor who has worked on and off with the department since 2018, has developed a pilot program aimed at helping officers understand what they’re feeling — and improve the choices they make as a result of those feelings.
In order to serve their community better, Arlington police are focusing their efforts internally.
“These people are taught to protect and serve their community,” Wessinger said. “And what I’m hoping to show them is that protecting and serving themselves — this is a big mind shift for them — should be equally as important. Because when they protect and serve themselves also, if not first, then at least equally, everything changes.”
‘One piece of a healthy tool kit’
Wessinger shuttered her yoga studio before the pandemic and focused her efforts on teaching mindfulness in corporate spaces.
Yoga, she admits, can feel exclusive — only select people have the time and resources to invest in a studio membership. But mindfulness has no barrier to entry.
“You don’t have to have a mat. You don’t have to wear special clothes,” she said. “It’s like, if you have a brain and you’re stressed out and you’re living in this world, almost for everybody, mindfulness in some way applies.”
Mindfulness is a collection of practices meant to cultivate awareness of self and environment, according to The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Although the tradition is thousands of years old, oft-cited mindfulness research began publishing in the U.S. in the early 1980s.
Since then, some mindfulness studies have been criticized because of questionable experimental designs or small sample sizes. However, a series of well-designed, well-executed studies have indicated that mindfulness can benefit patients with depression, chronic pain and anxiety. The benefits mimicked those of other treatments.
Mindfulness is no panacea, said Cynthia Powell, a mindfulness teacher and assistant professor at The University of North Texas Health Science Center: “It’s one piece of a healthy tool kit.”
What is mindfulness?
The awareness that emerges by way of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience, moment by moment.
Still, choosing to be present in the moment can help a person focus, self-regulate and respond more thoughtfully to a stimulus, she said.
Powell likens the outcomes to a quote attributed to Holocaust survivor and neurologist Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
At the Health Science Center, students pursuing a master’s in lifestyle health sciences study mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction as part of the curriculum, said Misti Zablosky, who chairs the department.
She knows police officers could benefit from what her students study — partly because her spouse is a police officer.
“They’re always very acutely aware of what’s going on in their surroundings, worried about their safety, worried about the safety of the people they’re trying to protect,” she said. “And it’s 24/7, so it doesn’t stop when they are not on duty.”
Oden is all too familiar with the ‘always-on’ mentality he carries as a police officer.
“There’s a hyper-vigilance that comes with it,” he said. “The moment you pull out of the parking lot, you’re in a marked vehicle, uniform, there’s potentially a threat. I’m on a 360 swivel, and physiologically there’s a response to that. Even when you’re off, you understand the potential for this, that and the other.”
Alongside protecting people, Zablosky’s spouse has been working to alter the perception that police officers abuse their positions of power.
“Not all police officers are bad,” she said. “So trying to prove that to people every day in your job or trying to prove your worth in your profession has to be very stressful as well.”
‘You don’t want to shove it down their throats’
With any new practice comes some skepticism. That skepticism is particularly heavy with department veterans, Oden said, who ask why they need something like mindfulness now, when they’ve been working without it for 20 years or more.
“We have 30-year cops that haven’t spent a minute on wellness,” he said.
Wessinger’s relationship with the police department predates the pandemic. Back then, Wessinger owned a yoga studio; she’d trained one of Arlington’s police officers there and, in 2018, he asked her to train some of his colleagues. Since then, she’s taught four or five yoga workshops at the department.
As she prepares to teach her eight-week course, the department is prepared to receive some questions from officers.
“There’s a lot of veteran folks where this is a very new thing to them,” Oden said. “You don’t want to shove it down their throats. It needs to be research backed, and having examples of this working is important.”
Studies illustrating its real-world implications are vital, as is explaining to officers it’s not just them who will benefit from mindfulness training. The residents officers interact with on a daily basis will also see positive results, Oden said, and Wessinger has worked diligently to understand the police subculture and drive home how this training fits into it.
“This will be a test of that,” Oden said. “It’s fully voluntary, so we will see who all signs up. Once programs are established, the results are overwhelming.”
He pointed toward existing programs Blue Fit and Blue Chip, which focus on physical and mental wellness, respectively. The demand for those programs has been so immense in recent years that the department has had to close enrollment and push officers to the next available session.
“Our agency has been turning this direction for a while,” he said.
‘Otherwise, we’re just burning through people’
For as long as Wessinger can remember, her mom practiced Tibetan Buddhism. Yoga was a consequence; Wessinger began in high school.
As a mindfulness instructor, Wessinger, now 45, works to help her clients find their ‘why’ — and her mom is hers. She died when Wessinger was 28. She’d had cancer, but stress, Wessinger thinks, took its own toll.
“For me, I want to honor her by making sure that I deal with my stress every day,” she said. “Not like once a month or once a week, but every day, so that I can meet my own grandkids one day.”
As time passes, those daily, chronic, untreated stress points build, she said. They create the exact kind of trauma on which she’ll focus her upcoming mindfulness course with Arlington Police Department.
Beginning June 13, Wessinger will train 60 officers in the practice of mindfulness for eight weeks. The summer course was funded by a federal COVID-19 relief grant managed by Challenge of Tarrant County.
The first few weeks will comprise lessons in neuroscience, along with some practice. As the weeks pass, the focus will flip: More practice, fewer lessons. They’ll discuss chronic pain, resilience, trauma, how to navigate challenging emotions, how to implement mindfulness long after Wessinger’s course ends.
She’s still thinking through how to measure success. In the past, it’s been qualitative, subjective — small interactions or emails with clients who follow-up with their victories after she’s trained them. She’s delivered a similar version of this course online and with Fort Worth ISD, but this is her first time running it with a police department.
This iteration, her outcomes might be quantified. Wessinger has spoken with Zablosky and Powell at the Health Science Center about what data collection and analysis could look like for this course.
If all goes according to plan, she hopes to offer a similar course to police officers and firefighters in Fort Worth.
“I’m so happy about the sea change for all first responders of, ‘Oh, wait, we actually need to take care of you, too, if not first,’ because otherwise, we’re just burning through people,” she said. “And it’s not sustainable.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.