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PODCAST: Mindfulness and an Evolving Law Enforcement Culture with Chad McGeehee and Susan Carnell

Updated: May 7

Chad McGehee and Susan Carnell on Mindfulness and an Evolving Law Enforcement Culture

Mindfulness teacher and college athletic trainer Chad McGehee and 26-year Madison, Wisconsin police officer and licensed social worker Susan Carnell discuss their experiences in delivering a mindfulness training program for police officers in Madison, Wisconsin. The very human nature of police work, the similarities with social work, and how law enforcement culture is evolving along with society. The power of embracing ownership and agency for our own habits and behaviors, as well as some of our collective cultural habits in law enforcement, some of which may be serving us and society better than others.

The impact of high stress and trauma on officers and how mindfulness training can support first responders in removing or transforming the shame associated with trauma and mitigating the negative impacts and health risks associated with occupational trauma exposure.

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Mindfulness and an Evolving Law Enforcement Culture with Chad McGeehee and Susan Carnell Transcript

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Hi, everyone. Welcome to another session on day two of the Global First Responder Resilience Summit. My name is Richard Goerling. I'll be your co-host for this session. Today's theme is mental fitness and resilience. Today I'm excited to be here with Chad McGehee and Susan Carnell. So, Chad and Susan, welcome. Thank you so much for being here. 

Susan Carnell: 

Hi, Rich. Thanks. 

Chad McGehee: 

Rich, thanks so much. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Yeah, you're very welcome. I am privileged to be here with you. I want to start out by just reading your bios. I know it's always kind of awkward to have your bios read, so if you can, just bear with me here. We'll do that, so people kind of has a sense of your background. And then, we'll kind of step into a conversation here. 

Chad is a meditation teacher who creates, teaches, and researches the impacts of meditation practices on well-being and performance. Chad's work has been featured on ESPN, NPR, and many other media outlets. Chad has taught meditation in various settings, including with current college athletes, retired professional athletes, law enforcement officers, and K-12 students and teachers. 

Chad's teaching approach incorporates findings from modern neuroscience along with accessible practices to incorporate meditation into daily life. At the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department, Chad became the first-ever director of meditation training in major college sports. Chad is an honorary affiliate of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and offers training through Inner Edge Meditation Consulting. 

Sue is a graduate of George Williams College with a Bachelor of Science degree in applied behavioral science. She received a Master of Science degree in social work with an emphasis in mental health studies from UW-Madison and is a licensed clinical social worker. 

In 1990, Susan transitioned into the allied field of law enforcement, becoming a member of the City of Madison, Wisconsin Police Department. In addition to serving eight years in patrol services, she helped many assignments, including Educational Resource Officer, safety education officer, municipal circuit court liaison officer, and neighborhood officer. Susan was assigned to the Madison Police Department training team in 2012. She retired from the city of Madison Police Department in 2016. Currently, Susan is an instructor of criminal justice at Madison College. 

All right, so you've set the stage. We have two fantastic human beings here with us today. So, what I love to do is have some conversation about mental fitness, about resilience, about neuroscience. And maybe even about this thing called mindfulness. Maybe I'll ask each of you just to kind of tell your story, kind of talk to us about the arc of your journey from somewhere to the microphone here today. So, Sue, if we can start with you, just kind of share your experience. 

Susan Carnell: 

That's a big time gap considering my age. We could be here for three, four hours. I think probably the best place to start would be midway through my policing career. I became a police officer with the city of Madison, Wisconsin Police Department in 1990. 

At that time, policing was in another transition, if you will. We were coming out and peeking into the crack cocaine epidemic nationally. More and more women are joining departments across the United States. It was about six or seven years into my career that I was beginning to feel a little lost. Policing is a very difficult job. As wonderful as Madison, Wisconsin was at the time with, I believe at least a 28-30% female police officer employment rate, I still felt isolated. I still felt alone and very stressed. 

I loved doing what I was doing. I loved helping people. I felt like there was very little support for myself. And in fact, there was very little support in general for individuals coming into the policing career, especially those who had a background in social work. The rallying cry from many of the troops at the time is "We're not social workers." 

I kept thinking to myself, "Oh, yes, we are. I've done social work. And this feels like social work to me." And so, there was just a lot going on. I was searching. I was searching for something to help me cope with everything I was feeling and coming from social work into policing, being a woman of color coming into policing, being someone whose sexuality was different. I identify as lesbian. I felt like there were way too many differences. There were just many, many differences. I just felt like I was unsupported. 

I felt in that search that I needed something. I just kept searching. I would wander bookstores endlessly. I was haunting the self-help sessions at local bookstores. And sometime in the summer of 2001, I hit upon a book by Pema Chödrön called The Wisdom of No Escape. I had found my answer. It was not long after that that I found my local meditation center, Tibetan Buddhist meditation. I joined and began my practice to classes, began focusing, learning how my breath was my constant companion, no matter what the storm. 

And then, 9/11 hit. I couldn't have been more glad to have the practice, even just those few months. Being able to have the practice to be able to find my breath led me to feel more confident in my work. I had a community outside of policing. I felt more grounded, more centered. I felt like I was bringing that to my work. Doors began to open up. I got my first offer outside of patrol services as a school resource officer. And we just sort of snowballed from there. If you asked me at any point in my career if I ever thought that I would be a Madison Police Department training officer, I would tell you, that's impossible. Everyone was better than me. But it turns out that I had something to add. 

On the day in 2015, that I had an opportunity to meet Chad. And then eventually yourself, Rich, that very next year. Those were some really, really good years. That's really where that practice paid off. I left my policing career in a really positive and good, and strong place. That's the place that I want for every police officer, from patrol services to Chief, to lead this career and be in that real positive, real strong place. And to do that, I really feel like this practice, this staying with your breath, staying centered in yourself, has really been useful, incredibly helpful for me. So, that's how I got here. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

That is really fantastic. Thank you, Sue. One of the really, I think amazing things about this story that you tell us about your experience is that you were able to move through the second half of your career and leave policing healthy. It's never as simple as it sounds, but by some simple practices of attention and attention to breath, and with those comes awareness and compassion and some other skills and humanity. 

That's powerful, right? There's no mystery too. I guess there's always a mystery, but there's no complication or complexity to what you adopted as a skills practice. And it carried you through your career, particularly in those years after 9/11, which were incredibly stressful, I think, no matter where you were in law enforcement or in the country. So, yeah. Thank you so much for sharing that. 

Susan Carnell: 

Yeah. Thank you. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

And we'll come back to mindfulness. Chad, talk to us. 

Chad McGehee: 

Sure. Yeah. So, I first came to mindfulness and meditation practice on a personal level. When I was 17 years old, and a tremendous amount of suffering showed up in my life. I felt like I had a choice. I had a choice. I could either run from it, I can hide from it, or I could somehow turn toward it. I could face it. 

Something in me said, "You got to go through it, and it'll be worth it." I didn't know how to do that. So, that put me on a path to try to figure out how to do that. It was really when I encountered mindfulness and meditation that I felt like I had both kinds of frameworks, but also those day-to-day moment-to-moment skills to be able to meet and transform some of that suffering. So long after that suffering changed, these practices just became a huge support for me as Chad, as a guy living his life. 

My first career was as a public school teacher, and this is a big support. I never intended to teach anybody any of this stuff. And then, I felt like I'm sitting on a goldmine with the kids that I'm teaching all day, with the colleagues that I'm hanging out with. So, I felt like I had to start to share, and they started to benefit. That put me on a path of what are the skillful ways that not only I can practice for myself, but I might be able to share this with others. 

I had a chance to join a group on campus here in Wisconsin called the Center for Healthy Minds. It does research on this sort of thing. And there, I got to train with a wide range of populations, corporate groups, education, and law enforcement. I'm not law enforcement. That is not my background. When these opportunities first came up, our team in Madison started to reach out to learn from those who were doing it. I have a huge debt of gratitude to both of you because you continue to be pivotal people that I turn to as I continue to do this work. 

And so, then we continue to do the work in Madison in the research context and outside of the research context, bringing mindfulness and meditation training into law enforcement environments. And my work has continued to now I, as Richie mentioned, at the top of my day jobs at the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department, where I get to spend time with coaches, athletes, and staff working on these things. And then, we have a consulting business to be able to continue to train with a range of populations, including law enforcement officers. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Great, thank you, Chad. Moving to police culture. Susan, maybe if we could ask you. You talked about the 1990s in this transition that law enforcement was moving through with female police officers entering the workforce in policing with the substance abuse of crack, cocaine, and so many things associated with that. 

And with the cultural climate in law enforcement, that may not be that different than today. I don't know. I'm curious to get your perspective. With regard to mental health, with regard to resiliency, just the whole human being, right. This whole, as I like to say, this remarkable human machine that we inhabit, right? How's the culture today in law enforcement 

the same or different than it may have been in the 1990s? 

Susan Carnell: 

Wow! Well, fine question. I think that women have been involved in law enforcement long enough that depending on where you are geographically in the United States, that they have become accepted and seen for the positive force that they are and for what we bring as human beings to the field, as well as contributing to the idea that to do police work, you don't have to just be about the 50 cups. Like George Thompson, if I'm getting his name right, he's from Judo, that what we do as our work, 95-96% is all coming from here, our heart, as opposed to our fist, right? So, I think that today, depending on where you are, there's a great deal more acceptance. 

Now, people being people, if you've met one cop, you've met one cop. I think this is actually where the nation sort of gets confused about us because understanding that each department is different and has a different set of policies and that there are some things that are generally the same. We're also individuals. Each of us has our own values. We have our own morals. We have our own ideas about who should be policing and what that should look like. And we will always have that. 

And so, perhaps that's not a clear answer. But I think depending on where you are, things are a lot better. Where are things better? I don't know. You'd have to ask a lot of individuals to get a good sense of that. What I can tell you about Madison is that things are very good for women at Madison Police Department. We have a torch of self-promotion years and years and years ago. 

I remember going to an International Association of Women Police Conference in Australia, back in I want to say 2000. One of the presenters talked about the Madison Police Department, and that person wasn't from Madison. They were from Australia, and they used Madison as a statistic for a number of women in the department. Even then, we were ahead of our time. And we continue to do that. We've passed that torch down through women in our department. 

And so, when Chad and Chris were approaching me about doing mindfulness with our department, I think we were in a good place to say, "Yeah, let's do it." I think that buy-in would be a lot easier because we do have a department that actually cares about one another. We matter to one another. We all acknowledge that we have different values and feelings. We still work well with one another. We are important to one another. So yeah, I think I'll stop with that because it just depends on where you are, which really, truly does. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Yeah, of course. I think the highlight just the evolution of police culture, the evolution of who shows up to serve as a police officer. And it's not just policing. It's the fire service. It's emergency medicine and many other dispatches, many other places in public safety. 

Evolution is important. To shift the conversation towards occupational stress and trauma, and towards mental fitness, mental resilience, and just to maybe have some conversation around. What do we know about the science of the human experience, and maybe looking at a discipline of psychology, discipline of sociology, discipline of neuroscience, and kind of bringing those together in this interdisciplinary consilience? 

And really, just maybe making some observations about how science is either informing or maybe not quite yet informing our leadership choices all up and down the hierarchy of a public safety organization, as it relates to mental fitness and resilience. So, maybe you both can offer your perspective of sort of the landscape as it relates to evidence-based interventions to enhance mental fitness and enhance resilience. 

Chad McGehee: 

Should I take the first crack at that, Sue? Then, you can fill in and add. I mean, I think scientifically, we know that we can train our minds. We used to think that by the time somebody was 20, maybe 25 years old and that their brains were done developing. Now, neuroscience could now be more clear that that's just not true. Our brains are developing and being trained throughout our lifespan. The scientific word we use for this is neuroplasticity. 

The question becomes, who's in charge of that process? Is it just the swirling winds of circumstance that are training for qualities in one's mind? Especially if you think about kind of high performance, high-intensity occupations like first responders. Or, are individuals able to make a choice inside of that context and set aside time to train their mind for certain qualities like resiliency, focus, stability, compassion, that we know can become pillars upon which they can enter the fray of situations that they will go into? 

I think the science here is extremely hopeful. It gives us, in sport and in life, we say all the time, "control the controllable." Well, here's a really profound one that we can control. And it's taking a little bit of time to train for qualities of mind that can be deeply supported, both personally and professionally, while still acknowledging that there's a whole lot we don't know, that the science is still in very early stages. 

And so, I think, for anybody in this line of work, as soon as somebody starts to promise the kind of benefits of these practices, walk away because that person's just selling you something, right? There's a lot of reason to be excited, but we also need to take a humble approach. And this is where as a meditation teacher, I get really excited is, "Well, let's go figure it out for ourselves. Let's explore it for ourselves." 

I think that's a lot of the work that Sue, you and I have done together in this work is, "Let's just get this training out there. Let's get 15 officers in a room. Let's go through an eight-week training and see what happens both kind of anecdotally." And then, we work with the scientists to pick up quantitatively what happens. We should be patient with science, but we also shouldn't sit around waiting for science to tell us what to do. Sue, what do you think? 

Susan Carnell: 

Well, Chad, I couldn't agree more. We are our habits, right? We are our habits. Anything that we choose to take on that we do on a regular basis becomes a habit. And those habits actually help us regulate. It creates some structure for us. 

Rich, you've been a police officer. You know this. We love structure. We love predictability. If you ask us to go to in-service training, then we have to take our gun belt with us. And then we've changed our routine. And then we forget our keys. We are creatures of habits in policing. People are creatures of habits. So, in order to work compassionately with the obstacles that come up for us every single day, we need habits. We need habits to deal with that. 

If we're asking police officers to be compassionate with themselves. And then, hopefully, that transfers over to others. If we're asking that, then we need to give them some habits. We need to give them something to work with regularly. And so, mindfulness. We have a plethora of different strategies. Pick and choose what is going to be your habit. Is it going to be the breath? Is it going to be a quick body scan? What is it going to be to you? What's your habit going to be? You choose. So, we're not selling anybody anything. We're saying, "Here are some things that seemed to work. Try it. What do you think?" And we'll leave it at that. 

I can give you more, but I'm not a neurobiologist, or a psychologist, or anything fancy like that. I can tell you what works for me. The science of resilience, of trauma, all of this is very, very complex and very, very individualized. So, all we can do is have many things to offer and fall back on the habits, especially for police officers because we do rely on that. We motor memory train our habits of doing the same thing every time so that it's automatic. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Yes. Sue, I want to kind of touch on this notion of, this is not a notion, it's the reality of habits. I like to refer to habits as sort of how we embody the skills that we hold, right? We have this knowledge, and we have skills, and our habits are really just the embodiment or the integration of the skills that we're learning. And particularly when we're talking about mindfulness. Ideally, we train habits. 

One of the beautiful things about training mindfulness as you're talking about with this scientific idea of neuroplasticity of being able to mold our habits, to mold how we think, to mold how we show up, to mold how we act, to mold our habits of how we experience emotion and how we respond to emotion, how we respond to challenge and all these things. 

This idea of who's in charge of my neuroplasticity is fantastic. I like that question that you bring out, Chad, because we're just identifying an action opportunity, whether you're a senior leader in public safety and/or an individual in public safety. Maybe this question of who's in charge of my neuroplasticity? Or maybe the question asked differently is, can I be the architect of my own habit? Right? My own set of habits. 

Ultimately, what we're teaching with mindfulness is, in fact, the empowerment that we can, in fact, pay attention to habits and then shape habits in ways that serve us well. I've never liked this notion of good habits and bad habits. I don't subscribe to that because all kinds of judgment and shame and blame and guilt show up that really just complicate things by just asking the question of who's in charge of my habits? And do I choose to be the architect of my habits? Do my habits serve me well? I think those are really powerful personal inquiries that we can make. 

If we're leaders of an organization, we're leaders in our community, this idea that we can shape the neuroplasticity of our culture is incredibly powerful. Right? So, if we think that all we can do is just run the bureaucracy, yeah, that's necessary. We have to do that, but we have this opportunity to shape cultural neuroplasticity. I think that's a powerful opportunity, as you both have sort of described this idea of neuroscience and practical and tactical application. 

So, let's talk about the application of mindfulness around occupational trauma. And Sue, I'm particularly interested in your perspective as a social worker, as a cop. And Chad, I'm particularly interested in your perspective around trauma as someone who works closely with people who experienced trauma in public safety, but also in high school and college athletics, right? The thing is that we all share the human experience together. We don't hold a monopoly on trauma in law enforcement, or fire service, or emergency medicine. There's uniqueness with all of our experiences with trauma, but it's part of the human experience. I'm curious to hear how mindfulness can intervene and support our experience with occupational stress and trauma. 

Susan Carnell: 

Wow, that's a really great question. Chad, do you want to take that first, or do you want me to jump in here? 

Chad McGehee: 

Go ahead, Sue. 

Susan Carnell: 

Well, I think one of the things that make me think about is that I remember when I started in policing. We really weren't talking about trauma, and things would happen. It was just assumed that as a police officer, you were trained to deal with that mentally and emotionally as well. And then, you just dealt with it. That was just part of our training somehow. I'm not sure. I think that that was wrong and that we got that wrong because things happen to us. But the part that was missing is that we forgot those police officers were human people who had a past before they were police officers and that they are also bringing that trauma, sometimes unresolved, to police work, where then they would witness trauma and then be suddenly taken back into an experience of post-traumatic stress. And the cycle would repeat itself until it became so bad that officers were starting to seek comfort in alcohol, and substance abuse, and other behaviors that were not appropriate. 

So, when we think about trauma, we have to think about the individual before they were a police officer. What are they bringing in, and how much work they've been able to do on that? There may be things that they don't even realize as individuals are going to come up for them when they do this work. And then when it comes up, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to punish? Are we going to create a shame cycle when someone messes up? Right? 

In order to keep trust in our communities, we have to address the mess, right? We have to address it. But is there a way to actually work to take that and take the shame out of it for that officer? Help them understand it, dust them off, pick them back up, point them back out and say, "Okay, this is going to happen to you sometimes. What can we do? What can you do when this happens?" Again, this is where mindfulness comes in. This is where it comes in. It's giving that human being something to fall back on once something has happened. So, when things have happened, we have a tool to refer to. We have a whole bunch of things that we can offer an officer to get them out of that shame cycle to identify what the trauma is and to say, "Hey, you know what, given what you've been through, it's perfectly normal. And you're okay, and we're going to make it better. We're going to give you some tools to help make it better and make you stronger." 

We can't do this if we're putting officers in a constant change cycle, especially if they choose to make themselves vulnerable to us and you talk about leadership. This is where we need our leaders to really be strong to say, yeah, we support you in this. We have to deal with the fall-out. But if we can, we're going to make you better, stronger, faster. Right? We're going to do that instead. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Yeah. I love that, Susan. We have historical trauma that, because we're human, we may bring to the job, right? Whatever degree, whatever intensity, and then we have the occupational trauma that we experience. What you're describing is a way of being. I love this idea of the shame cycle because it's what we do, right? We remove the shame from the trauma experience, whether it's a trauma injury or just simply an experience of trauma. I think that's critically important. 

One thing that mindfulness can teach us to do is to pay attention to how judgment like shame emerges. I guess one way of saying it is to kind of reject it and to choose an alternative way of thinking about ourselves right now, some self-compassion around that. But it's also helpful to help us frame our own conversations and how we approach other people who are experiencing occupational trauma within public safety. It's pretty powerful stuff. 

I'm curious of what your observations are about the stigma around trauma injury? And this idea of the shame cycle, I mean, I haven't seen it, but the research tells us it exists. Are we getting better in our public safety culture around stigma and shame? 

Susan Carnell: 

Are you talking specifically about injury? Or things like light-duty work? 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

It's all the same, right? 

Susan Carnell: 

Exactly, right? So, it's going to depend on the individual and the messages that they're getting from, I want to say command staff, but I also want to say to co-workers, kind of real healthy level. 

When I started this job, I remember an instance with my field training officer. I knew that I was getting a cold. I worked nights, and I was feeling awful. At the end of my shift, I told my field training officer, "I don't think I can come in." And she was horrified. And she said, "Don't say that too loud. They'll think that you're just using sick time to take a day off." I was mortified. So, I came in, and I was sick. I didn't take care of myself. 

I don't see that now. At least with medicine. Again, I can only speak to what I see with local departments and people who I know. And what I see is that when individuals feel like they need a mental health day, they don't have to have a cold. They just have to maybe not be feeling like their real best. Like they could really help, and they need to just sort of refocus taking that day off. Does it create a hardship? Does it maybe make your co-workers not feel so great? Maybe, but when your co-worker needs it, you understand it as well. 

We have to teach officers that it's okay. Not to abuse systems but to really understand that not just the physical but the mental health is absolutely critical. And that shame that we have around light-duty and being out, this is extended to everyone equally, that this is for your benefit. It's sort of like when I was a kid. I prided myself on not missing days of school. I don't miss any school. I have perfect attendance. Well, okay. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And once you've got a 25-30 year career to deal with, you need to go out on top because you got a lot of life to live when you're done with this. This is not everything. I'm here to tell you it's just not. 


Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Yeah, we're shifting. I remember the days when we would reward police officers for never using sick leave. 

Susan Carnell: 

Right! We still do that. We still do that. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

And I used to see that and be like, "Well, you're now rewarding police officers for coming to work sick." And if anything we've learned in the pandemic, that's probably not a good idea. Right? So, yeah. That's super interesting. And our languaging, I think, is shifting around how we talk about trauma, and that impacts the shame cycle factor. So, Chad, I'm really interested in your perspective on mental fitness, and mindfulness, and occupational trauma. 

Chad McGehee: 

I mean, I think I just want to build up to something that Sue, you were commenting on a few moments ago around in law enforcement, individuals in the organization is supporting folks to be better, faster, stronger, and it's highly valued and a lot of time and resources and energy is given to it. In the way, I've come to think about this sort of work is strength conditioning for the mind, right. 

In every weigh room everywhere, right? There's some version of bigger, faster, stronger. So, I think part of what we're doing is we're training to be more focused, more resilient, and a better teammate. We're not just saying that stuff. We're actually dedicating time to do that. So, no elite performing officer, just like no elite performing athlete, would ever show up without having their body physically ready.


Yeah, we show up all the time in the mental training paradox of talking about the importance of the mental side of things, yet not actually spending the time to train for it. So, how do we start to fill that in with real training? And I think that's what we're here talking about is those real training that we can do so that we can experience some of these benefits. Because we know, I mean, the research is very clear that in law enforcement, those organizational stressors add up over time and have big effects on people in a way that oftentimes I think, externally is not in law enforcement but I hear it oftentimes from people on the inside who are in law enforcement, that it's kind of those acute incidents, they think. The big ones are the ones that have the effects, but it's those smaller ones over time, the research says. So, how do we just navigate having a career, having a life that we know that's going to come? 

This is more of a proactive approach, right? It's kind of getting ahead of it because we know it's going to happen. And then, I also want to acknowledge the limitations of mindfulness and meditation. There are going to be times where some big ones hit, and mindfulness and meditation is not the right response. That life gives us some curveballs that are so intense that we just need a little bit of extra support. And for a physical injury, if somebody busted their leg, we'd say, "Well, go see the doctor." Right? "Get that thing fixed. We'll see you in a couple of weeks." But we don't do the same thing with mental, emotional injuries across high-performing high-intensity fields. 

How do we start to shift that? Right? And Sue, I think you're eloquently speaking to this. So that acknowledging, "Hey, I'm a human. I have emotions." "Hey, I'm a human. I'm going through a hard time." It's just part of what it takes to show up in life and in these careers. And I'm convinced that when we do that, not only are we happier, healthier people, but our performance goes up. We're able to do our jobs better. I think first responders are clearly a human business. And how people show up, Rich, I love your language around how do we show up with the fullness of humanity allows us to perform at even higher levels? 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Yeah, thanks, Chad. To draw an analogy, mindfulness skills training is just skills training that we hope that public safety professionals can embody. We still need a team of interventionists. In any of your athletic teams, you have an integrated medical team of professionals that are there to support your athletes. We need the same thing in law enforcement, and public safety, and other public safety. 

One of the things that we say when we train with first responders is my personal accountability. The way I trained to be the architect of my own neuroplasticity is to train these skills in mindfulness, this awareness and compassion. They're complex, and they're simple. They're all kinds of paradoxical and interesting, and all these things, right? 

Yeah, I'm also accountable to take action with what I'm observing. And so, what that means is to step into interventions to make appointments with my medical doctor, to make appointments with my psychotherapist, to intentionally pursue a social connection with others, and not to isolate myself. Right? To intentionally pursue adventure, and joy, and awe, and spirit. For some, maybe it's a faith practice. Others might just be standing on the ridge looking over the valley or both, right? It's not mutually exclusive. 

To pursue gratitude practice, right? To have this cognitive practice that disrupts negative thinking. There's a number of other things that go along with that. So, to be very clear for the folks that are joining us here. Mindfulness is not a panacea. It's not a fix-all. But what it is, is deep inner work that we all need to do in order to even know how trauma is showing up in our bodies because that's where trauma lives. We know this. 

I mean, the classic body of work by Bessel Van Der Kolk, right? The Body Keeps The Score. It's a great book. It's a great body of work behind it, a lot of wisdom there, and a lot of science there. We know that trauma will stay in this remarkable human-machine if we don't acknowledge it and we don't work to process it. Some of that work we can do on our own and some of that work needs to be done with interventionists. And so, I just want to highlight that point you made, Chad, because it's critically important. 

So here we are with mindfulness. We're talking about mental fitness. One thing that has really struck me is that we're in a time in public safety, and maybe it's more visible in policing, where we're at a tipping point in the direction of the future of our public safety for all kinds of reasons for the elimination of institutional racism to just the lack of consistent standardization among all kinds of issues of use of force and all sorts of things across the nation and policing. And even just mentioning that it's probably fighting words for some of the folks that are listening, right? Because it's a very touchy situation here. 

The fact that we can't say something like Black Lives Matter without eliciting a defensive response is really, I believe, a symptom of dysregulated trauma inside the culture of policing because, of course, they do. Right? 

So, looking at human performance, looking at organizational performance, looking at systems performance, what's the next level that we can go to in public safety in America that's consistent with democracy, that's consistent with case law, that's consistent with what Americans want in public safety? To me, that's a performance conversation. And it starts individually with each member. This part of a public safety organization starts with community members as well. 

And so, there's a lot of challenging things happening right now in public safety. One of the things that I've observed working with a lot of police agencies is that it's really hard for police officers in particular because they're being vilified. I just drove this morning through downtown Portland, and there's an empty wall that says, "Cops lie." It's quite creatively painted. I look at that and just think, you know, from a police officer in Portland Police Bureau that's really heavy. Those kinds of things are all over the city of Portland, and there are all kinds of vilification and dehumanization of police officers, which I find pretty sad and ironic. And yet there's a voice of reform out there that needs to be listened to as well, right. 

So, we have this conflagration of ideas and opinions and vilification and dehumanization that, frankly, is on both sides of the badge. We're talking about resilience. We have an exodus. This phenomenon, this exodus of police officers from policing today that they've just had enough for all kinds of reasons. They can't do it anymore. They choose not to. And for those who stay, there's a sense of real demoralization for many of them. I wonder if there's a sense of feeling trapped. 

I'm painting this really kind of sorted picture, right? I'm wondering how neuroscience, how mindfulness skills training can inform and encourage and support the men and women who remain in policing, in particular, to continue showing up day in and day out to do the very difficult work, the very complex work that is policing to hold our humanity, to sharpen their performance skills, just sharpen their ability to deliver their tradecraft. Right? And all the complex ways that that shows up. So, what are your thoughts there? 

Susan Carnell: 

I mean, you're talking about the shame and the dehumanization. I just want to say I don't believe for one moment for people who are policing currently or for those who are in our community, who are feeling that procedural justice for them is shot. And that we need to defund and just get rid of everything and start all over again. 

I would say to both sides, shame and humiliation, and dehumanization is not a social justice tool. Never has been. Never will be for both sides of the coin. We ought to be thinking better and higher. We have a big issue in our country of acknowledgment, of saying, "We are sorry this happened." We don't know what's going to make it right, but we need to formalize that but there is so much shame, and perhaps that shame is turned into hatred, and we've dug our heels in for continuing to humiliate police officers, people of color. 

Shame is not the answer. Shaming and dehumanization will never be the answer to that question. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I can definitely tell you what it's not - digging in our heels and not addressing the societal shame that we have placed, particularly on people of color, Blacks specifically. Imagine the decades, the centuries of dehumanization. Of course, Black Lives Matter. It's not that police lives and blue lives don't matter, but if you're white in the United States of America, you haven't been subjected to centuries of dehumanization. 

And so, we need to get our heads around the common sense of it all and start there. But it's so big because we all are carrying our own trauma and we want quick fixes. And so, let's just defund everything. Well, that's not practical. And so, we need to clean up ourselves. We need to hold as individuals in each of our communities, our police departments, individually, the ones that represent us in our own community, responsible. This is how we're going to create change, but only if we do this community by community. Because again, if you've met one police department, you've met one police department. You can only fix that one police department. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

So, the question might be, how does mindfulness skills training support both the humanity of police officers and their performance in the community in a very difficult time? 

Susan Carnell: 

This is that question of shame and vulnerability, isn't it? Right? Now, we're living with an inherited problem in this country as police officers. We were not born two or three, four centuries ago. Have we benefited? Have some of us actually benefited more? Yes! Yes. 

Again, this goes to acknowledgment. The only way to acknowledge that is if we as individuals study it, look at it, and say, "Oh, my gosh. Yeah, I can move to this side because this did happen and this did create this dynamic." instead of just taking the easy route and saying, "Well, I don't want to look at it too close. The blacks are doing better now. Forget about it. They're okay." 

Come on. It's not that simple. And you know it's not that simple. It may feel that simple, but when you take on working with people, then you take on the idea of continuously improving yourself and committing to that. Mindfulness is a way to do that. It is a way for us to hold ourselves accountable and to help ourselves. And by way of doing that, we help our communities. It's one person at a time. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Yeah, I love that, Sue. It's this idea that each of us does our own work, right? We each do our own work. And that work is about personal development and vertical growth. And so, said differently, it's about performance. Right? And so, from the performance conversation, Chad, I know this is your wheelhouse when you talk about languaging mindfulness around performance for first responders. Can you speak to that a bit? 

Chad McGehee: 

Yeah, happy to. But before I jump into that, I just want to add something. This is as non-law enforcement. I assume there's gonna be some folks on the call who aren't law enforcement, who aren't first responders. Right? Those who are kind of interested and thinking about how to do this. And so, I just want to say a few things about that because as Sue was speaking, I was learning so much. And hearing that firsthand experience of what it's like that I do not know. 

Wherever I show up, my background is I'm White. I'm cisgender. I'm heterosexual. I'm formally educated. All of this informed by experience throughout my entire life. I'm not law enforcement. Anybody who's interested in, I think, doing this work, making sure that they just spend a lot of time learning, immersed, getting comfortable in the environments, and learning from the wisdom that is already there because there is an incredible amount of wisdom. 

With that being said, I think there's also probably a benefit for law enforcement agencies. I've heard this first responder agents have heard this a lot to partnering with non-law enforcement folks, with people on the outside, civilians as they're called. Because we show up in a different way, right. And also kind of with partner organizations, whether it's universities or community agencies, whatever that may be, and have long-standing established relationships that can continue over time over the years, and get something really important that folks can kind of continue to pay attention to. 

I think the work we've done in Madison is an example of that, where we have had long standing relationships for years. I mean, I remember when I was probably doing this work for two or three years. We taught I don't know, six or seven classes or something. I had to take my son with me to drop off something at the training center. At the time, he was maybe three years old. And so, I got him in my arm. We're walking into the building. It occurred to me to ask him a question. I said, "Finn, what do you know about police officers?" He's a blank slate kid, right? Like, what's he picked up? He pauses, looks at me. He says, "Dada, police meditate." 

I told that story to a few people, and they were like, "Well, your son is literally the only person in the country whose first connotation with policing is that they meditate." But I took that as like this sign, right? What's possible as we've moved forward, right, both externally for non law enforcement, non-first responder folks, and kind of how we view law enforcement, but also internally, like, what are those pillars of what it takes to be a high performer, right? Like, yes, it's all the tactical training. Yes, it's all the physical training. Absolutely all those things. How are we training for humanity and centering that? When all of those come together, then we give ourselves the ingredients for transformation. 

I love how you've spoken to this, Sue. It's gonna look different in different agencies, different parts of the country. That's great. It should look different. I think we've identified some of those common pillars that, if we pay attention to them, are likely to yield beneficial fruit. Not only for the officers themselves, but friends, family, and those that they ultimately serve. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Yeah. I want to highlight what you both have said, just a piece of what you both have said because it's true in my experience as well. Sue, I love how you frame this. You've got one police officer. You've met one police officer. And that's important because what happens when we start to get the good kind of outcomes that we get with mindfulness training with police officers in particular, and we see with firefighters and other first responders too. We see great outcomes, right. 

And so, for example, just to touch on that very quickly. In your study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the really encouraging things that it showed was that we see reductions in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder was significant, right? In a study we did recently here in Oregon, we saw the regulation of cortisol levels. There's much more really positive data, but just those two things, it's like, wow, okay, yes, we should be doing this. And then, what happens is we want to scale it. Let's build one curriculum, and let's scale it and let's just do it. Right? 

You talked about something that's really critically important. One is that training programs need to meet the needs and the nuances of the communities that they're in. Community is the first responder organization. But additionally, they need to be community based. To frame it from my experience, what I like to say is that if we exclusively train law enforcement with mindfulness, we will corrupt mindfulness. We'll strap Molly Gear on it. We'll pay him the same line through it, and it will be nothing more than something we call tactical breathing. It really won't have those outcomes that we see in the research. It won't impact humanity. It's the pathway to greater performance in the tradecraft of any first responders tradecraft, whether it's fire service, or medicine, or policing, is, in fact, that pillar of humanity. 

If we want to go next level, we have to move through humanity, which means we have to address occupational stress and trauma, the trauma we hold, and maybe it's trauma that we brought to the profession. It probably is on some level. It's certainly trauma we experienced. But my encouragement is mindfulness training needs to be community-based, which means maybe we have a law enforcement person who has been trained to be a mindfulness coach, and we have a certified mindfulness teacher in the community. And maybe they don't look like the same person. Maybe their skin color is different, their culture is different, their gender is different, but they are stronger and richer together than if it was just a police officer who went through train a-trainer, and now they're teaching mindfulness. 

All right. And what you do in Madison is going to look different even three hours down the road. It's going to be different. It may not be that different, but it's going to be different. And you know how we train cops in LAPD is certainly different than how we train them up here in Portland Police Bureau. It's just a reflection of being smart. It's a reflection of showing up to the room and being fluid and responsive to what's there to what people need, and creating conversation relationships. 

That's what I hear you all saying, and I took some liberty there to kind of describe that a little deeper because it is critically important for folks who are listening. The message that I hear is that mindfulness skills training is this foundational skills training. It's that foundational pillar of humanity that moves us into other spaces of performance, and whether it's personal or professional, or whatever. 

What I'd like to ask you both as kind of a final question is speaking to the first responder and then speaking to the leader of the community or the leader of the first responder organization. So, two separate or maybe even three separate populations. Is there some wisdom you can share, a recommendation you can make to each of those populations? 

So, the first responder. Maybe that first responder is wandering through the self-help section looking for some kind of support that doesn't exist in the institution because we're failing them. The leader who's living in a crucible of stress, right? And she just wants to be a chief that can support her people. What do we say to her? And a community leader who wants to influence the fourth evolution of policing and public safety but maybe doesn't know quite how to build relationships. Choose one or all questions. See what shows up, and if there's some wisdom you can share.

Susan Carnell: 

I had so many thoughts there. Something that you said before about mindfulness and resilience and the perception of it all: it's not a panacea. It's not something that is going to be a one size fit all. Not just for any particular department or any community but for that individual as well. It may not be that person's cup of tea. 

Shame and vulnerability are such hot topics and things that we just don't want to talk about because of shame and vulnerability. And so, if you're asking me, number one, about resilience, I want to tell you I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago in a housing project. I know what being tough is, and I know what being the target is. I also know that that's required on the street when you're talking to people because you can't pussyfoot around. We don't have time sometimes. But that does not mean that you can't be kind. 

And so, if you're asking me what we can do as an individual, what I tell an individual, what I say to a community leader? I would say be kind. Listen, we get into habits when we're exposed to trauma that we stopped talking, we stopped trusting, we stopped feeling. Start listening. Be kind. If you don't know how to be kind, then mindfulness is probably going to help you because you're going to be able to work compassionately with yourself. It's going to take forgiving yourself. It's not gonna just take mindfulness practice. You may need to go and get yourself a therapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a life coach. 

Goodness knows throughout my career, I've had them, and I have one today. All right. We cannot help a positive growth-type mindset unless we're willing to know ourselves. The bottom line, be kind. Listen. Start talking. Start trusting. Period. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Thank you, Sue. That's beautiful. Yeah. Know thyself. Be kind. Listen. Yeah. 

Chad McGehee: 

This is the joy of having taught with Sue, right? You can imagine if you're in a room with people and you hear that, then you just give it some space and silence, right? And just let that settle in. Right? That is tremendous wisdom. That's what mindfulness does, right? It gives it that space to settle in. 

I mean, I think it was you, Rich, who introduced me to Richard Strozzi Heckler. He says, "An idea is only a rumor until it's known in the body." How do we track that was back in, and I found nothing like mindfulness that allows me to be able to do that or allows others to be able to train in those skills. 

So, a couple of thoughts reach out kind of like words that came to mind kind of for those various groups. First, to the first responder, I would say you're not too far gone. Whatever's happened. I don't know it. It is an unbelievably challenging thing. You are not too far gone. There is hope. You can take certain things into your own responsibility to train to work through that. And you have a lot of people that are very deeply interested in supporting you. So, let's go. You're not too far gone. 

For the leader, I would say do not make mindfulness and meditation your next initiative. Because if you do that, it's going to fail. People will sniff it out and say, I'll just wait this one out, and it'll go through, and then the next one's gonna come, right. So, instead of that, I would encourage any leader to try to find a group of people that are passionate about this that really care that have that experience that maybe you have a Sue Carnell on your staff who is a 15-year meditator, who's really interested, right? These people start to emerge and kind of build the core team of internal champions and then support that team to build out in skillful ways. 

And for the community folks, absolutely. Just build trust. Don't show up to fix anything, Show up to be a partner. Community, individuals, agencies, universities have a lot of wisdom and knowledge, but nobody cares what they know until they know that you care. Take that time to build those relationships. And also, one of the things that I've seen happen for folks kind of peers of mine is training mindfulness and meditation in first responder context is not for everybody. 

Some people just don't like it. I love it. I love being in a room where people are swearing when they're describing what happened to them and their meditation. That may not be for every meditation teacher, and that's fine, right? But just make sure it's a good fit, right? So then you enjoy it so that you're around people that you kind of want to be around, and then a real exchange of learning and growing can happen. 

Lt. Richard Goerling: 

Great. Thank you both. Yeah, this has been really fantastic. I wish we had more time to continue the conversation. There are things that we didn't get to touch on that I'd love to touch on. But I think we've got to come to the end of our time here together. 

Yeah, it's been absolutely fantastic. I appreciate the wisdom and the skill that you bring to this effort. I look forward to staying connected and continuing to learn from each other, and to make a difference as we move forward. So, thank you both very much. 

Susan Carnell: 

Welcome and thank you, Rich. 

Chad McGehee: 

You're welcome. Thank you, Rich and Sue, for who you are and your years of practice. I'm honored to work and train with you.


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