TAO OF POLICE
By Tom B. Collings
Denzel jumps out of his chair in anger. “Why are you – – — going with me?!” He is very agitated and is now pacing the floor of his social worker’s office, cursing loudly. As his probation officer, I am the first officer to arrive. I stand to the side and watch. with what’s going on. The employee seems frozen in fear as she just sits and lets the guy walk around her office cursing at her. At one point my mind would have screamed, “Don’t just stand there – do something!” but I’ve since learned and train me to do the opposite. A small voice says, “Don’t do anything, Thomas. Just stand there.”
Just watching and listening, I realize that the social worker is not frozen in fear. Her silence has a purpose. With no one to argue with, no orders to protest, Denzel seems to be gradually calming down. The employee’s disciplined response allows his intense emotions to slowly dissipate. Her inaction has allowed Denzel to vent his anger and frustration without argument. She saw the behavior for what it was: not violence, in fact the opposite of violence. Harmless oral release of pent-up energy. Noisy, yes, dangerous, no. I wish my friends understood this.
When other bosses arrive, they are pumped up and ready for action! The sergeant says, “The call said a boy was out of control. I suggest that things are fine. “Everything is under control, Sarg; it just got a little loud. The guy just got a little annoyed. He didn’t hurt anyone.”
The sergeant agrees, but he’s probably thinking, “How lazy…” The officers are probably both relieved and disappointed – they had responded ready for action. I know they had expected me to arrest Denzel and violate his probation for disorderly conduct. I understand how they feel. It’s very uncomfortable when you can’t release that adrenaline through physical action.
Of course, I’d love to hear one of them tell me “You’re a real taker.” Don’t we all have that? But I’ve seen too often that the inevitable adrenaline rush that always accompanies potential danger, coupled with the expectation to “do something,” unfortunately often creates violent confrontations.
If we arrested everyone for occasionally expressing their feelings loudly and rudely, we wouldn’t do it everything be in jail? I know I would. Should “order” really be our highest value? “Order” is not the same as security, which is the true role of a peace officer. Being still and “not doing” often takes more energy and discipline than “doing.” Ask anyone who has tried meditation. Try to sit still for more than a few moments. You quickly experience an onslaught of thoughts, sensations and emotions. There are overwhelming feelings of boredom and restlessness, or itching, pain or physical discomfort in the neck, back or knees. Are you still sitting there? Not likely, not without a lot of training.
It took me a long time to learn this and even longer to gain the self-discipline needed to practice it under pressure; to avoid overreaction, which usually leads to physical confrontation; and seeing the sound and fury of shouting, cursing, etc. for what it usually is: an alternative to violence. It is, in fact, self-control – a disturbing and sometimes frightening, but far less destructive release of pain than violence. I realize now that allowing people to express their feelings verbally, even yelling and cursing, reduces their need for physical expression. In truth, expressing strong emotions is very human and rarely dangerous.
The Taoists were right: it was the actions we didn’t take that allowed Denzel to express strong emotions, calm down, and regain his composure.
The discipline required to listen, without arguing, correcting, lecturing, or catching someone in an agitated state, allows for escalation to occur. It takes time and patience. Pressure must be resisted to get things right quickly and ‘back to business as usual’.
When peace officers are called in, people expect you to “take charge” and fix the situation. It feeds your ego, gives a sense of purpose, makes you feel useful – a “real take charge” person. That’s why it’s so hard to still be in this situation.
When friends say, “I tried meditation; it’s not for me,” a more accurate report would be “I tried meditation, but stillness is just too hard. It’s scary!” Being still and doing nothing but awareness is really just about the hardest thing one can do (or not do). After thirty years of practice, I still find it very challenging.
While staying still and just listening usually helps people de-escalate, police receive little or no training for this. Yet we are expected to use restraint, without being taught any skills to achieve this. All our training is ‘action oriented’.
Meditation and breathing exercises are my two most important tools for restraint. How could I do this job well without them? I learned these things when I lived in Japan and studied in China, but they should have been part of my Peace Officer Academy. Maybe we need a new kind of police academy.
When I leave, walking to my car is another quiet exercise I learned. I’m not busy planning, fantasizing, dreaming, worrying, etc.; I feel the footsteps on the asphalt, then the heaviness in my shoulder. Next the breath moved in and out. I feel the wind blowing through my hair and hear the sound of a seagull screeching on a nearby rubbish heap. They call it mindfulness, just being still and coming to your senses.
At the next destination, the post office, there is a long line. The guy in front of me complains angrily about the wait. I understand his excitement. It’s hard to sit still and do nothing. But I do not share his excitement. The line offers a quiet space, without responsibility and nothing to do. My deep breathing takes over and leads me into deep relaxation. A peaceful space in my busy day. It feels like being back in a Zen monastery.
Oh no – I’m almost to the front row. Maybe next time I find a longer line!
NEXT: Why meditation belongs in law enforcement
About the author
Tom B. Collings was born in Forest Hills, New York. In his twenties, he moved to Japan for three years to practice Zen Buddhism at Chogen-Ji Temple in Shizuoka and aikido. In four subsequent trips to Asia, he studied Taoist meditation, Tai Chi and Qigong.
Back in America, he worked for seven years as a psychiatric social worker and then for 26 years as a probation and parole officer and police instructor with the NY State Dept. of Police. As a self-described “street monk,” he has relished the challenge of trying out Dharma practice as he encounters convicted criminals, drug users, and juvenile delinquents.
Tom has taught violence de-escalation and prevention to a wide variety of groups, including police, hospital staff and nursing home staff. His current interest is integrating mindfulness into police work. As director of the Long Island Asian Studies Center in New York, he leads training in mindfulness and Zen meditation, Tai Chi and Aikido.