Hillsboro police look to reduce on-the-job stress with resilience training

More police officers die by their own hand each year 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 Hillsboro 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 into his classroom, where he’ll “coax vulnerability from strong civil warriors.”by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Richard Goerling in uniform.

Goerling 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 has written a groundbreaking curriculum — Mindfulness Based Resilience Training — that will take officers to the yoga mat, the treadmill, the phlebotomy lab and beyond to soothe their souls and sharpen their minds in the wake of a string of challenges in recent months.

Hillsboro police endured a standoff in Forest Grove in January in which one of their own officers allegedly shot at officers from three Washington County agencies. They weathered the sudden exit of the department’s former chief, Carey Sullivan, in March. And they anxiously awaited the resolutions of three labor complaints and a lawsuit aimed at the city by the police union in April.

Those trials left the rank-and-file in a collective funk, according to a survey released last month by interim Chief Ron Louie. The survey shined a light on officers’ dissatisfaction with the way Sullivan had managed operations at the helm of the 120-officer agency.

“It’s been a challenging time,” Goerling said last week. “We need cops who are well, because they’ll perform better during encounters with the public, whether or not they have to use force. We have to lead forward — away from where we are.”

Twenty-five officers are registered for the initial series of classes, which begin May 7 at the department’s compound on Southeast Tenth Avenue.

Perfect storm

Despite his agency’s troubles, Goerling, 44, isn’t despairing. Instead, he’s busy polishing scientifically-backed methods he thinks will help cops cope as they navigate a profession that’s fraught with danger — and sometimes self-destruction.

“We operate in an extremely high-pressure, high-stress environment,” said Goerling, a 16-year veteran of the local department. He insists the top brass across the country has been failing its officers for years.

“Our leaders and managers are the ones who traditionally haven’t wanted to embrace change,” said Goerling, who accepted a commander position at Hillsboro’s west precinct in 2011 but resigned that post after discovering his own leadership philosophies — which he characterized as “people before process” — bumped up against Sullivan’s. “I want to be at the epicenter of a cultural shift toward leadership that cares about the well-being of its people,” he said.

Goerling thinks the time is right for that kind of revolution in Hillsboro.

“Before, the culture of law enforcement wasn’t ready for this,” he said. “But now, the perfect storm is here. This is really about shifting our department from one that is suffering to one that can thrive.”

With solid backing from Louie and Hillsboro City Manager Michael Brown, Goerling plans to roll out several class series over the next three years. After the one this spring, another will follow in September.

“Rich and I had partnered in this venture in 2007, before I retired,” said Louie, the department’s longtime former chief, who experienced a homecoming of sorts when he stepped into his temporary role in March. “I wanted this kick-started sooner than later.

“The number one issue that bothers police officers is not the people we encounter on the street. It’s the morale inside the building.”

Taught by Yoga Hillsboro owner and mindfulness expert Brant Rogers, Pacific University social psychology professor Mike Christopher and Goerling, the two-hour classes will continue 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.

“I’m interested in the biophysical markers,” said Bual. “I think what we find out could explain away a lot of issues people are experiencing within the department. It’s a global look mentally and physically.”

The potential for living a more productive and peaceful life hooked Bual 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, who’s 47 and lives in Hillsboro. “But I’m going to trust Rich with his kookiness. He’s got the heart.”

Lt. Steve Vuylsteke, a 48-year-old who’s been with the department since 1983, will assist in the exercise motivation area during the course’s first wave.

“I was asked to be in charge of the physical assessment and nutrition piece,” said Vuylsteke, a regular runner who has completed a half-marathon. “I want to get people to stay in shape. I put my hand in the air and said yes.”

He’s curious about what the resilience training can do for patrol officers in the Hillsboro police HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Richard Goerling does his morning laps Monday at Hawthorn Farm Athletic Club. It's one way Goerling, who´s bringing a new resilience training course to the Hillsboro Police Department stays in shape physically and mentally.

“You’ve got to have something to get you through the rigors of shift work,” said Vuylsteke. “We’ll get this mind-body thing going on. If we’re in condition mentally and physically, we’ll come out better in foot chases and during altercations.”

Still, Vuylsteke won’t expect miracles.

“You’ve got to find out what motivates each person,” he said.

Wait until officers are broken

Some of the concepts the course’s instructors plan to convey can’t come too soon for those doing police work in a rapidly-changing world. Increased dependence on social media for locating suspects — as in last week’s Boston Marathon bombings — as well as forensics and DNA evidence advancements, have made the field of law enforcement far more complex than it used to be.

It’s more important than ever, Goerling believes, for officers to be proactive and holistic in their approach to personal health.

“What we’re good at is reactive work,” said Goerling, who still operates in the upper echelon at HPD. “We’re not good at nurturing a culture of proactive resilience.

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

A real-life example of what can happen when officers reach the breaking point hit Hillsboro police hard three months ago last Saturday.

The evening of Jan. 20, Tim Cannon, a former HPD cop, held his wife and daughter hostage in an upstairs bathroom at their Forest Grove home and exchanged gunfire with police officers from three agencies before surrendering to authorities.

No one was killed, but Cannon remains in the Washington County Jail on multiple charges of aggravated attempted murder and assault. His case is scheduled to go to trial July 16.

Only a day later, a Las Vegas police lieutenant committed suicide after killing his wife and child and setting their Boulder City, Nev., home on fire. And in February, ex-Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner went on a bloody rampage, allegedly murdering three people before ending his own life with a gun as tactical teams moved in on him.

Suddenly, Goerling’s goal to train Hillsboro officers in resiliency and mindfulness went from the back burner to the front.

“Was the Tim Cannon incident the catalyst for this? No,” said Goerling. “Was it connected? Absolutely yes.”

As officers have jumped on board, anticipation has built to near-fever pitch as Goerling envisions meditation sessions, group discussions and something he calls “tactical breathing” — in jest.

“I’m not trying to make people into spiritual contemplatives,” he said. “What we’re saying to officers is, ‘Here’s some training that invests in you and your journey.’”