To Shoot or Not to Shoot? Police Make Better Choices After Resilience Training.

  “We pull people out of wrecked cars, we hold people’s hands when they’re dying, we talk to 5-year-olds when they get raped, and one cop puts a chokehold on somebody and all of a sudden we’re all racist killers.” -James Glennon, retired police lieutenant


Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled Diamond Reynolds over for a broken taillight. Moments later, 32 year old Philandro Castile, nutrition services supervisor at J. J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, was dead. Why? Reynolds says Philandro Castile was just doing what Yanez ordered him to do–reaching for his ID. Yanez, on the other hand, says Castile was reaching for his gun. Yanez pulled the trigger seven times, apparently out of mortal fear.

As her 4-year old daughter watches from the back seat, Ms. Reynolds calmly live-streams the next 10 minutes to Facebook. The video shows Castile’s blood-drenched body, head lolling slightly. We hear him mumble. We see his eyes shift, then close. Through the passenger window, we see the officer’s weapon poised to put another bullet into Philandro Castile’s dead body. We hear the officer’s erratic breathing as he gasps, then screams “Keep your hands where they are! Fuck! Huuawh! I told him not to reach for it! I told him to keep his hands off it!”

The video went viral, sparking weeks of protests. Now in social media’s permanent and public record, it remains a vital piece of evidence in Yanez’s trial and in the nationwide struggle to stop police brutality and racism.

   “The police are not there to protect and serve us, they are there to assassinate us.” -Diamond Reynolds

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi condemned the officer’s performance: “…no reasonable officer knowing, seeing, and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances.” Yanez was charged with three felonies: one count of second degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm.

How can we expect an officer to make a clear-headed decision in circumstances where you or I would either faint or act like a wild savage? Racial bias is clearly part of the problem. But I don’t believe for a minute that officers are out to assassinate black men–or anyone. The real problem? Lack of effective training. We fail our police by not providing resilience training so they are prepared to make clear-headed decisions in critical moments like Officer Yanez faced.

Across the country, police departments are looking for ways to answer the public’s demands to end racism and brutality. What was an already challenging profession has become a pressure cooker. Demoralized, officers are afraid to do their jobs. They know they have become targets. On January 20, 2017, Officer Michael Louviere responded to a crash scene in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. As he kneeled over Simone Veal, who had multiple gunshot wounds, Officer Louviere was shot in the back of the head. Both died.

Stress is an unavoidable, essential, factor of living. Only when it increases enough to become noticeable do we say we feel stressed. Fact is, at moderate levels–when heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute (BPM)–stress enhances performance. But when heart rate exceeds 150 BPM performance starts to fall apart: motor skills–the dexterity to aim and shoot a weapon or dial a phone number–disintegrate. And at a heart rate faster than 170 BPM, you become, effectively, blind, deaf, and dumb. As Dave Glennon puts it, “You’re going to lose your peripheral vision. You won’t hear your partner yelling things. The higher your heart rate, the more you get cognitive deterioration.”

I experienced this myself when I was robbed by a gang of black teenagers. Two handguns, one by either cheek, put the fear of God in me. Fortunately, I have resilience from practicing yoga, breathwork, and meditation. I’m convinced my ability to remain relatively calm saved my life that day.
In critical moments, such as the one faced by Officer Yanez, an officer must be able to think straight. They need resilience. Luckily, resilience is not fixed at birth, like a personality trait. It can be developed and strengthened. Resilience training prepares first responders for the internal ‘fog and friction’ acute stress causes.

Resilience training builds the capacity to perform–to make rational decisions and do your job as trained–in critical moments of acute stress. What is resilience? In the context of police, military, fire, and other first responders, resilience is one’s capacity to “face the most extreme circumstances … and be able to continue … doing your job on any given day” (Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance, Chief of Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces. 2015).

It should come as no surprise to learn that the search for a solution is being led by the military. What may surprise you is the inclusion of mind-breath-body practices from Hindu yoga, Buddhist meditation, and Oriental martial arts in many of the studies. While some programs focus more on training the mind while others emphasize training the body, they all include some type of breath training. Why? Because breathing is the only autonomic function anyone can learn to observe, monitor and control.

To me, the most promising programs are the ones that combine ancient breath-centered practices with hi-tech biofeedback. The iPREP program, for example, includes “instruction and use of biofeedback to practice engaging in controlled breathing … [which research has shown can] enhance SNS [sympathetic nervous system] control during stress (McCraty et al., 2012)”. Wearable biofeedback systems, such as the Smart Shirt developed at Georgia Tech, make it possible to analyze the stress response of an individual, identify that person’s triggers, and then customize the training to make it even more effective. Beyond the initial resilience training, this system can function as a hi-tech job performance aid, both while the officer is on duty and off. It’s meant to accompany her or him from the first day in the force through the last.

The benefits of resilience training are many, and are not limited to performance during a high stakes critical incident. Another big benefit is better overall health. Any increase in resilience decreases chronic stress, a huge problem for first responders in general. For example, active-duty police officers who participated in one mindfulness-based study reported improved sleep quality. Other benefits documented include reduced PTSD-related symptoms, less fatigue, less hyperarousal, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, it’s not unreasonable to assume some would experience relief from suicidal thoughts and urges–and actual suicides.

“The knowledge that I can control my reactions is huge!”

What evidence exists that this training actually improves decision-making during confrontations? After one police training, participants “displayed significantly enhanced situational awareness, overall performance, and made a greater number of correct use-of-force decisions (shoot/no shoot) than officers in the control group. … Improved performance directly translates into potential lifesaving decisions for police and the civilians they are working with” (Andersen 2016).

And what about evidence from the street, from actual police experience? The following account is from an officer with the San Diego Police Department: “Last week I was in a situation in which a person squared off on me and started reaching in his jacket. I went to my breath and activated coherence and never felt anything but calm. As I noticed the sirens of my backup arriving, I realized my heart was beating slowly. Every other time that has happened, I basically screamed for backup and it took me a whole day to calm down. When my Captain got there, he said he thought I was kidding when I put out the call because I sounded so calm on the radio. He asked what I’d been doing differently. This stuff is for real.”

Let’s make this happen. We have solid evidence that resilience training works, that it has the potential to make America’s streets safer. I firmly believe it will save black lives, white lives, red lives, yellow lives–all colors. It can save officers’s lives, too. We have to make resilience training standard in every police department, large and small, so that what starts out as a routine traffic stop–like the one that ended Philandro Castile’s life and Officer Yanez’ career–has a better chance of ending as one.