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PODCAST: Mindfulness and Effective Peer Support with Sgt. Brian Casey

Updated: Apr 24


Sgt. Brian Casey, on Cultivating Emotional Fitness and Resilience speaking with Crawford Coates 35-year veteran police officer, paramedic, EMS educator, and author, Sgt. Brian Casey of the St. Paul, Minnesota police department shares his insights as a health educator from more than three decades of attending to critical incidents and supporting fellow officers doing the same.

Transitioning from a 20-year career as a paramedic and health educator to becoming a police officer now 15 years into his law enforcement career as a patrol officer and returning to health education for his fellow police officers.

The importance of effective peer support programs and what makes them work. The importance of being careful about the use of language and the risk of making assumptions about trauma and harm... that experiences are not automatically traumatizing, but rather it depends on an individual's experience. What creates trauma and harm for one person may not for another.

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Transcript


Crawford Coates: 

Hi, and welcome to the Global First Responder Resilience Summit. My name is Crawford Coates. I wrote a book called Mindful Responder. Today is my great pleasure to talk with my friend, Sergeant Brian Casey, who is a sergeant at a big city in Minnesota, and author of a really good book called Good Cop, Good Cop. Former podcast host and an expert on peer support as well. 


Brian, why don't you tell us a little bit more, because I know I left a lot out, but tell us a little bit more about what it is that you do and how you got into first response because you did not start out in law enforcement. 


Brian Casey: 

No, I didn't. My interest in public safety work when I started out was ambulance work. I think what drew me to it literally was flashing lights. I mean, I was one of those kids that was super attracted to emergency vehicles. I'm a police officer now and I've certainly seen those kids standing on the side of the road as we drive by. Maybe a little boy or a little girl that watches attentively as we go by. 


I was really interested in that whole, well, I don't know what it is, aberrancy maybe, literally, which is a bit of an interest to me now when I frame it that way because right now, I'm a police sergeant and I manage our internal and enhanced employee assistant program or wellness program. One of the things I do there is help people find pathways to wellness. 

The reason I contrast that with my interest in chaos or aberrancy, I kind of do like to think I'm helping navigate through chaos and aberrancy and difficulties that people have. So, that's what I do now. But as you mentioned, I worked through college as an EMT on a private ambulance. I got a degree in health education from the University of Minnesota. 

I was literally really near the end of my academic career or pursuit. I saw a fellow moping a floor and I was so brain weary from college that I thought I want to do labor. I want to do a labor job. So then, immediately after college I got a health education degree and then I went to paramedic school.


Crawford Coates: 

When I graduated from college, the first thing I did was become a carpenter. 


Brian Casey: 

It was a balancing act, I guess. And then, I ended up having a 20-year career as a paramedic and EMS educator. And then, late in life, I made a career change and became a police officer. And now, I'm in my 15th year of being a police officer. I feel like I'm having a fabulous career 


both as a patrol officer, a short period as an investigator. I wasn't nearly as good at that job as I thought I would be. Then, a patrol supervisor. And now, the director of our employee assistance program. I manage our peer team as well. So, I'm back doing health education.

 

Crawford Coates: 

Yeah, you are. And that's interesting because I always tell people that when it comes to peer support, you are peerless. I really think you know a whole lot about it. You have a great perspective on it because I do think you bring to it your paramedic experience as well as your law enforcement experience. You're also just a naturally curious guy, which I think helps in any pursuit. 


Brian Casey: 

Well, thanks for saying that. I do feel that's true. Even dealing with officers in crisis, there's many times I've been really grateful for my EMS experience when dealing with that and as well as health education. 


I really frame mental emotional distress in a way that a lot of it just seems really natural and normal and sometimes necessary. So, I have really a health education orientation towards all these things especially in my area now in law enforcement, some of the struggles. 


Crawford Coates: 

Yeah. I sent you the questions. I'm going to go off of those a little bit because I was just wondering. Obviously, you see not all stressful situations end up becoming trauma situations for officers. You and I have discussed before how one event can trigger one response in one officer and a very similar event can have a very different response for that officer or that first responder. What are some of the keys that you see in preventing potentially traumatic situations from becoming debilitating trauma, as you and I both have seen?


Brian Casey: 

Yeah, that's an interesting question. First of all, I'd like to say that I'm not a clinician. I'm not a therapist. The officers accuse me of acting like one, dressing like one, talking like one, but I'm not and I think I have some of those propensities, if that's the right word. But I really think of myself as a health educator, as a coworker and a coach. And actually, someone that guides them towards the resources, the access point. 


So, that's why I hold in high value maintaining my trustworthiness and kind of being on the factory floor a lot because I really value that. When you talk about trauma in particular, I have a lot of direct experience with psychological trauma maybe. I don't have a substance use disorder but I deal with a lot of public safety workers that do and I've gained a lot of education and understanding of that and all the other mental emotional distressing things. 

To answer your question, I think it's very important to frame things correctly and be careful around our language. For trauma for example, things are not traumatic unless they're experienced as being traumatic. 


I know as a public safety worker and working with officers, I don't like the automatic assumption that they've been harmed. I don't think it's necessarily helpful or even appreciated. We're certainly not denying the harm that can come from the work. In fact, in order to do this work well you have to gain experience. In order to gain experience, you need to expose yourself, if that's the right phrase to a lot of impressive and awful things at times and find your way through that. 


I guess to answer that, I guess I would say, careful how you frame things. Deepen our own understanding of it. Try not to project on people our own experiences. Does that help with that question? 


Crawford Coates: 

100%. Yeah. No, I agree. It really does come down to the individual and what they experience. And you need to have, as you said, that trust there in order to have them express what they have experienced rather than fall into a default mode of, ‘Oh, you experienced trauma because X, Y, or Z happened to you.’


Brian Casey: 

Well, that's correct. I also have this orientation that stress and distress can be our friend alerting us to things that are out of order, or things that we do that no longer work well or anymore, and that we're not managing well. 


So, how would we know if things weren't going well if we didn't experience some form of distress? In fact, I'm often the first contact for officers and other public safety workers when things aren't going well for them. 


Sometimes I have to restrain a little excitement when I hear that they are struggling because I know that something good might be coming to them, and they're being alerted to something, and they're starting to verbalize their distress, and then seek some type of outside resource. 


And that outside resource in our case often is either peer support, but more commonly, therapeutic help. I say to officers, “You can often get through these issues but culturally competent therapeutic help can really accelerate healing and recovery.” Let's just talk about progress, and help you make progress as a man or a woman. 


Crawford Coates: 

In doing that peer support work, do you ever feel that you're subjected to various trauma or that you get sort of a fatigue from being around it all the time? Or is it the opposite that it invigorates you and it reminds you of what matters in life? Or is it somewhere in the middle? 


Brian Casey: 

I don't know if I'm typical but many of my coworkers and people who have held my positions before, they haven't had many long 10 years doing the work I'm doing because it's pretty intense. 


I've been a teacher, I've been a paramedic, I've been a patrol officer. This is probably the most consequential and at times most intense work I've ever done. But I seem to recover very quickly and that's kind of a good message at least that I have for myself is just that I seem to recover well with rest and recovery. But I do experience other people's distress. 

What I think is helpful for me is to know the limits of my abilities. I'm not so sure, this is a controversial statement, I'm not so sure there's such a thing as compassion fatigue. There might be such a thing as empathic fatigue but compassion or deepening your understanding, I find invigorating. And even during massive crises in our region with rioting and all those types of things, I often found that gathering up with the officers, being where they are, actually elevated me. 


I mentioned earlier about the importance of therapeutic help which I'm a big advocate for. I'm also very interested and see the massive benefit to communal healing and that's why I'm so interested in peer support. Not only communal healing but also the protective factor that could be provided by peer support. These kind of amateurs in the best sense of the word. 


Crawford Coates: 

When you were speaking it reminds me of something Bessel van der Kolk said about responding to people who had experienced trauma during natural disasters is that, when you tell those people, ‘Go into shelter. Don't do anything. We're going to take care of it. FEMA is here. We're going to handle everything.’ they often have a more traumatic response that they're actually able to go out there and haul sandbags and bring water to each other and help each other out, that act of helping people. And that's what stress is there to do is to motivate us. 


Brian Casey: 

I think that's a very good point. And additionally, we as humans can manage a lot of distressing things if we have a higher sense of function and purpose. I mean, maybe this isn't a good example but just think as a parent. There's times that you go to bed like, ‘If I could just get one or two hours of sleep, I think I'll be okay.’ But you're highly motivated by your purpose and function. 


So, I've had officers say the most inspiring things to me after the most incredibly distressing events they've been through. What it says to me is they're trying to frame things in a way that provides greater purpose, function, and utility to what they experience. 

Literally I know cops that say, “I volunteer up to do death notifications because I really know those need to be done well.” Or, “Next time I go to a homicide scene with multiple victims, I think I'm going to be a little better at it and better at dealing with this or doing that.” 


So, I think it's our continuous need to have a sense of purpose, meaning, and function. It's there for a good reason. There's many inspiring quotes about this but getting more clarity about the why you do what you do.


Crawford Coates: 

Yeah. And also taking pride in it, in your profession and in your craft. It's one thing that our friend, Jim Glennon, always tells people is, “You need to hone your craft as a police officer just as you would if you were an artisan or a writer or something.” 


So, one of the things that's interesting about you, again, is you've evolved in your career. You've gone from being a paramedic or EMT, to a paramedic, to a police officer, to a sergeant, to a peer support person. I suppose, and I don't want to presuppose, but you have fun learning new things, is that right? 


Brian Casey: 

I do. Another way of thinking about this and I thought the other day is, maybe a negative thing and a resentment I have is when people think that these jobs are so easy. Police work, ambulance work. A lot of jobs or crafts, they're actually very easy to do poorly, very difficult to do well. 


So, curiosity, I like that word. I think it also is not a sense that I ever really possess the job that I've reached the limit of a job. I was thinking about those that might be interested in EMS careers. My advice to them would be, really be curious about medicine. Ambulance work is a fabulous experience of deepening your understanding of physiology and the body. And it makes your job so much fun to be really curious about medicine. 

Law enforcement. There's a lot of dynamics in law enforcement, but one of the really encouraging exciting things is deepening your understanding of the law. It actually makes the job a lot more fun and interesting. 


I don't feel like I'm ever reaching the end of anything. I don't know if that's the way to phrase it. So, that's why I'm continuously interested in things and improving. I'm also scared too. I mean, my first few years as the EAP director, I was scared that I wouldn't be good enough at the job. I knew the level of responsibility I was taking on. 


Crawford Coates: 

Yeah. Something you and I have talked about before is just a lot of the stress that comes with the job actually comes from within the walls of the agency. It might be a lack of support from the top or it might be people gossiping or bullying. Since the topic of this is resilience, how do you create a culture of resilience within a law enforcement agency, and how important is it?


Brian Casey: 

Well, I think it's very important to know that resiliency can be both gained and lost. So, it is a worthwhile endeavor. It's something that you can lose and something you can gain. 

I often don't use popular phrases for whatever reason. And so, when I think about stress, I actually frame that as managing thinking for example. And resiliency, I'm a little bit cautious about talking about resiliency to police officers because I'm like, ‘Are we trying to tell them this is another thing they're doing poorly?’ 


During the riots in our cities, it was extremist. It was very intense for several days. It was upside down and backwards. Do you know what I commonly heard officers talking about? The fact that they had been away from home so long they hadn't been able to cut their grass and they were worried what their neighbors would think of them. 


I had officers saying that they were planning their kid’s birthday parties and now they had to reschedule them because they were instead on a battle line taking rocks and bottles. So, I would be reluctant to walk up to these people and approach them with an attitude that they need to be more resilient. I found that they demonstrated a lot of resiliency. 


Having said that, I like to frame things in terms of managing their thinking and developing maybe a more emotional competence. Basically, skills that you can learn about managing thinking and emotions and such to improve or enhance resiliency. 


Crawford Coates: 

You know that I'm big into mindfulness and meditation and all that sort of thing. I do what's called seated meditation or zazen most days. I know that's not your bag but I also consider you to be a very mindful person. I think your interest in breath work is fascinating. Do you mind telling me a little bit more about sort of how you got into that, what it does for you, and would you recommend it? 


Brian Casey: 

Well, again, if mindfulness could be also described as intentionality, being attentive to certain things and pathways and experiences, I probably do practice a lot of mindfulness. Matter of fact, if you knew my interior processing of my brain, I might be considered someone that does it all my waking hours. 


I've often seen value in routines versus motivation because the motivations sometimes can be fickle and doesn't stand well up to high self-esteem, low self-esteem, or anything you could describe as ‘I don't feel like it’. So, I've always had routines in my day, where I start my day with prayerfulness or prayer and what I like to describe as seeking sources of wisdom through whatever books or scripture or other items, or commentary. And then, kind of get your intentions for the day. And then, at the end of the day, kind of reflecting on that. 

So that's a kind of mindfulness practice I've done as long as I recall. The breathwork, because I tend to lean towards the kind of intellectual type, I'm actually in my son's bedroom not a library as this might suggest, but I sometimes feel like I might need to go the other direction. Do a little more somatic work or body work. I'll come back to that. But breathwork helps me calm my nervous system. 


I'm kind of interested in the polyvagal theory and the impact that it had on me, especially my early days as an EMT, where I thought something was wrong with me because I was basically taken on a wild ride physiologically during intense stress when I was a novice. I thought it was something dysfunctional. Now, I see it I wasn't accustomed to those changes in the body. 


So, breathwork I really enjoy. I'm really surprised how much I enjoy it. I like the Wim Hof method, where I do breath holding. Who would think that you'd get to this age and you'd brag about how much you like to hold your breath? But it's been very helpful to me and I see the great value in it. 


The reason I said I'll come back to that is because I am so much of a thinker type of guy. I see benefit in going the other direction. That's one of the things that law enforcement did for me. I became a police officer at age 45, which is remarkably old for a police officer to start out their career. 


It was very good for me to learn a new career, but what it also gave me was it got me into my physiology or physicality more because I needed to be a police officer so that I could prevent injury, that I could say what I mean and mean what I say, and I could survive the big attack if that occurred. So, I think it would be good for me to continue to pursue these mindfulness and breathwork and other things. 


Crawford Coates: 

Well, I'm glad to hear it.


Brian Casey: 

And your book is helpful for that. 


Crawford Coates: 

Okay. Good. Well, do you want to talk about the polyvagal theory because that's something that I don't think very many people know about but it's fascinating. 


Brian Casey: 

Well, I'm aware of the vagus nerve. It's the 10th cranial nerve. I'm aware of it because I learned about it as a paramedic because it kind of puts the brakes on some of the systems like the heart. Meaning, it can slow down the heart. 


We used to actually have a technique where we could stimulate the vagus nerve by rubbing the carotid arteries or having people do what's called a Valsalva maneuver. Say, they had a runaway heart rate, which is a heart dysrhythmia that occurs with some people and they feel like they're going to die. We can recognize that as paramedics and we can actually do some things to slow that down. So, I became aware of the vagus nerve. 

There was a period where men or women wore stiffed collars and sometimes, they would stimulate their vagus nerve unintentionally and their heart rate would slow down and they'd fall over. I didn't need to go into all that. But the vagus nerve from my understanding is an ancient nerve that travels from the base of our brain through the center of our body. It gets activated and there are ways that we can calm the vagus nerve. 


Crawford Coates: 

This nerve affects how our voice comes across. It affects digestion. It's one of the reasons when people get stressed out they sometimes have an upset stomach. The polyvagal theory is that it has this ancient evolution within our bodies. It's something that we hold in common with fish and mammals. And so, it's a very interesting theory. 


Brian Casey: 

And there's lots of information. Do you talk about it much in your book? I don't recall. 


Crawford Coates: 

I did. I did a little bit.


Brian Casey: 

Yeah. Because I don't remember all the sources that I've gotten for this but there are lots of interesting sources. Even the things that I talk about for mindfulness or health and wellbeing and managing your thinking and emotional competence, none of this stuff is original stuff, these are often ancient things. 


I'm particularly interested in historic philosophers who existed greater than 2000 years ago on managing your thinking and destructive emotions. So, as you said, the polyvagal theory looking back to ancient times, I think that would be very good for us. 


Crawford Coates: 

Back to the talking about a culture of resilience. We've evolved to live in societies and to support each other. We also have evolved to have some pretty more base tendencies as well but it's sort of up to each of us as individuals and also as public safety agencies to foster that sense of wellness within the community. 


Brian Casey: 

Well, can I bring something to that? Because both as a patrol officer, maybe as a paramedic. In particular as a paramedic, I became a relative master at calming myself because for a living you're walking into people's crises, medical emergencies, and people would literally look into your eyes to try to gauge your reaction to their distress. And so, you intentionally maybe hid your reaction and calmed yourself to try to project calm. So, I got to be very, very skilled at that and I brought that into police work. I'm not saying I can't be intense as needed as a police officer but mostly I wouldn't approach things initially that way. 


And so even in peer support, I had a friend call me the other day that was traveling out of state to go visit somebody that was in massive distress because of an officer-involved shooting or a line of duty death, I should say. My counsel to that person was to center yourself, calm yourself so that when you approach that situation you are more receptive to the needs of the moment versus your own issues, that type of stuff. 


So, I'm very good at centering myself, at calming myself. I've made that mistake a number of times. I have done a good job with it but I think that is an important part of peer support or being a good service or use to others is centering ourselves.


Crawford Coates: 

Yeah. That's a great point. One last question I think and that is, as public safety has evolved and changed, do you see opportunities for increasing, and I know resilience might not be your word, but having a more resilient, more sort of mindful fire department or a police agency or the ambulance service? Do you see opportunities ahead or are there concerns that you have? 


Brian Casey: 

Well, there are certainly opportunities, there is certainly a need for it. Some people are actually already practicing very well. One piece of advice I give to young officers is to look around the roll call room. Who are the people that possess calmness, are helpful, are encouraging? Consider having some curiosity about how they live their lives, how they manage their things. 


My advice for any public safety agency, probably the number one thing they can do for health and wellbeing, is to strive to have a high functioning agency. And then, add resources and start to communicate and message, if that's the right word, some of these ways to calm yourself, to manage your thinking, to resolve your distress. 

Crawford Coates: 

Well, something that we've talked about before is that also there is a tendency, I think, to talk high level when there are obvious issues like shift work. I mean, if you're not sleeping, you're not going to be healthy and you're not going to be mindful. Eating well on the job. It's not always easy to do but it really affects you profoundly. Having positive relationships and having support both within the agency and from friends and family as well. 


Brian Casey: 

And those are all protective factors. You can't armor yourself material-wise enough to do the work safely because then you're not going to have the agility to literally get in and out of a police car and move. You can armor yourself and gain agility mentally and emotionally. 

I think even you would just take one of these items, sleep or adequate rest and recovery. Remember rest and recovery can include enjoyable pursuits, laughing and play, and all those things that you do with your children or friends and family. But literal sleep, rest, and 

recovery as well. It makes us more vulnerable. It makes us interpret situations with higher suspicion if we're under-rested and what's frightening is it makes our own ability to assess our alertness. We lose some of our ability to assess our own situation.


Crawford Coates: 

Yeah. Do you have anything else that you'd like to add at the end of this? 


Brian Casey: 

I think we could get through a lot of our distressing events eventually. The problem is, neglect and inattention will start to appear and it might appear in our relationships. We can do a lot of harm there. So, it's a worthwhile pursuit to be intentional about your health and wellbeing. There probably is really no other way to pursue greater health and wellbeing. 

And know that one thing that agencies should consider is the huge benefit of peer support. Another way of thinking that is kindred spirits. We really need people that we have some commonality with and share our views and our struggles and our aspirations. 

I like this topic a lot. I like talking to you a lot. I like what you do. So, we can go on and on but I'll stop here. 


Crawford Coates: 

Thank you all for attending the Global First Responder Resilience Summit. And Sergeant Casey, always a pleasure to speak with you, thank you very much. 


Brian Casey: 

Thanks for having me.

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