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Hillsboro program could help Forest Grove and Cornelius officers, too

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Police Lt. Richard Goerling does his morning laps in the pool at Hawthorn Athletic Club. Its part of a program to enhance physical, mental and emotional wellness he plans to bring to his own department this spring and to other agencies next year.It can be a surprisingly short trip from crime-fighter to accused criminal.

Tim Cannon stepped over that line in January, when he allegedly assaulted his wife at their Forest Grove home and exchanged gunfire with law officers from three agencies before surrendering.

A Hillsboro police officer at the time, Cannon is now in the Washington County Jail awaiting a July trial on multiple charges of aggravated attempted murder and assault.

One day after Cannon went rogue, a Las Vegas police lieutenant committed suicide after killing his wife and child and setting their home on fire.

Every year, more police officers die by their own hand in America than are killed by assailants. They have higher rates of divorce and alcoholism than people in other careers. And they’re more likely to commit acts of domestic violence.

Richard Goerling is on a mission to change all that.

The veteran police officer and U.S. Coast Guard reservist is determined to help his colleagues better cope with the pressures of their jobs by inviting them to a new class, where he’ll “coax vulnerability from strong civil warriors.”

Goerling, 44, isn’t kidding himself about the cultural barriers he’ll have to leap in order to make that happen. “This is a bit out of our element,” he said. “But call anything ‘tactical’ and cops will do it.”

Goerling, a Hillsboro Police lieutenant, has written a groundbreaking curriculum — called Mindfulness Based Resilience Training — which will take officers to the yoga mat, the treadmill, the phlebotomy lab and beyond to soothe their souls and sharpen their minds.

The “beyond” includes group discussions and meditation, or “tactical breathing” as Goerling calls it. These are all scientifically-backed methods, he says: “I’m not trying to make people into spiritual contemplatives.”

But Interim Cornelius Police Chief Ken Summers thinks a certain level of contemplation is important. “We work out physically, but too often we don’t pay attention to our mental and emotional conditions,” said Summers, who is interested in Goerling’s approach — and may have a chance to try it out.

Goerling is starting the program in Hillsboro next Tuesday, May 7, but says he’d be happy to export it to other agencies next year. “The end game would be to make this about regional police resilience,” he said.

While the class is too late for Cannon, his outburst helped bring it from the back burner to the front in Hillsboro, Goerling said.

Twenty-five Hillsboro officers are registered for the initial series of classes, which will run for two hours every Tuesday evening for nine weeks.

‘I have to find that balance’

Officer Marth Bual said he’s excited to get started. He’s particularly eager to see how he stacks up in terms of endurance tests, blood panels and whatever else Goerling throws at class participants.

The potential for living a more productive and peaceful life hooked Bual, 47, from the beginning.

“At the end of my career, I don’t want to be that guy whose wife left him and whose daughter hates his guts,” he said. “For the sake of my job, and for the sake of my family, I have to find that balance.”

He thinks Goerling has the charisma — and the chops — to help him take his personal wellness to a new level.

“It’s a bit scary — I’m going to let these people be extremely invasive into my psychology and my physiology,” said Bual. “But I’m going to trust Rich with his kookiness. He’s got the heart.”

Pacific University social psychology professor Michael Christopher and Yoga Hillsboro owner (and mindfulness expert) Brant Rogers will co-teach the class with Goerling.

Christopher and Rogers have been doing research together about stress reduction and mindfulness. For the class, Christopher will both talk about stress and measure it. At Pacific, he has tools to measure perceived anxiety, degree of depression, physical health and cortisol levels.

While he’ll adapt his language to “fit with police culture,” Christopher said, the material will have mindfulness at its core.

Wait until officers are broken

Right now, Goerling said, “what we’re good at is reactive work. We’re not good at nurturing a culture of proactive resilience.

“We wait until officers are broken, and then we try to fix them.”

One of the problems, according to Forest Grove Police Captain Mike Herb, is that “in police work, nobody ever wants to admit they’re having difficulty. They’re reluctant to let a supervisor or co-worker know there’s a real weakness.”

People become police officers because they want to be helpers — not help-needers, Herb said.

As Summers put it, “We look at our role as sort of the ‘white knight.’”

But many officers struggle with the same mental health issues — depression and stress — as some of the people they’re called to deal with on the job.

To start with, said Herb, there’s the stress of those sudden, blood-pressure-spiking shifts from a quiet evening writing reports to a “shots fired” call.

In that sense, Summers said, officers are like prey animals, who go from sedately nibbling plants to “all of a sudden running for their life.”

Then there’s the stress of the dangerous incident itself, Herb said, and the stress of holding in emotions (in order to do the job) during a frightening or tragic call.

There’s the stress of officers knowing if they make a mistake (or if a citizen thinks they did) they’ll instantly hear about it — as will the rest of the community if it shows up in the media, Herb said.

In Cornelius, Summers said, officers have also had the stress of internal, departmental clashes, including “whistleblower” accusations of corruption that led to the retirement of the department’s chief, the demotion of a second officer and discipline of a third. That kind of environment can wear officers down, he said — first making them hopeless, then hardened, and finally apathetic.

“We have some really idealistic young officers who, as they lost their hope, they became depressed in spirit,” Summers said.

If the stress doesn’t show up in rogue moments like Cannon’s, it can show up beneath the uniform, as a cardiovascular problem, type 2 diabetes, sleeplessness, digestive problems and more, said Herb, who has developed hypertension over the last five years.

Cannon’s prescribed medications included antibiotics, sedatives, muscle relaxants and antidepressants, according to an investigator’s affidavit.

Behaviorally, stress symptoms range from overeating to increased alcohol use to self-isolation.

According to Kevin Gilmartin in his book, “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement,” officers ride a “Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster,” as described in a “Command” magazine book review:

“We cops develop and fine-tune our skills on the street to keep us very aware of our safety ... On-duty, we are on the upper end of the rollercoaster and tend to feel alive, alert, energetic, involved, and humorous. Off-duty, we dip into the lower end of the rollercoaster and we can become tired, detached, isolated, and apathetic.”

Gilmartin and other stress experts offer one-day seminars in the Portland area, which many Forest Grove and Cornelius officers have attended.

Both departments also offer free counseling through Employee Assistance Programs and 24-7 police chaplains. “Captain Ellingsburg, along with myself and Chief Schutz, met with the chaplain (Dexter Danielson) following the Cannon shooting,” Herb said. “We all found it very helpful.”

In addition, supervisors can step up their personal involvement and mentor troubled officers — assigning them to less stressful positions or encouraging them to take vacation time.

In Cornelius, Summers bought copies of “Who Moved My Cheese?” — a book about dealing with change — and passed them out to his officers. While he believes his department is changing for the better, Summers knows even good change can be stressful.

Both Summers and Herb want to learn more about Goerling’s holistic approach.

Stress is inevitable, but shutting down emotions to avoid it is not an option, Herb said: “You have to have empathy in order to have the passion to do the job.”

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