Could Self-Care And Breathing Techniques Help Veteran Chicago Police Officers Reform The Department?

Chicago Police in masks
Chicago police officers wear masks during a protest downtown. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Police in masks
Chicago police officers wear masks during a protest downtown. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Could Self-Care And Breathing Techniques Help Veteran Chicago Police Officers Reform The Department?

Last week, as part of the city’s attempts to reform its police department, more than 50 newly promoted Chicago police sergeants and lieutenants logged in to an online meeting to learn about breathing techniques, restoring energy and self care.

The teacher, David Dubois from the police training organization Blue Courage, acknowledged that the concepts are unique for a profession where cynicism, lack of sleep and long days are, if not badges of honor, at least a deeply-ingrained part of what it means to be a police officer. But the self-care concepts are central to the department’s attempts to empower officers to interact more respectfully with citizens, even in tense situations.

Dubois tried to make the case that for the new police leaders, managing their own stress — and helping the officers below them manage theirs — would be just as important as any other part of the job.

“You're all new leaders … in the Chicago Police Department,” Dubois said during the early morning training. “From a leadership perspective, I think about it and I say, ‘OK, this is an officer survival concept.’ ”

At one point, Dubois, who is a sheriff in New Hampshire, put up a slide with a list of things that can be emotionally draining, including long work hours, financial stress, sleep disruption, uncertainty and unexpected change.

“Now, some professions have some of these things, but our profession, if you look at it, exposes us to all of them,” Dubois said. “Everything on the list we have. So there is a huge need for us to pay attention to resilience and energy management.”

Chicago police officials say the Blue Courage training is part of an increased focus on mental health and well-being as they’ve overhauled the training for officers being promoted to leadership positions. Some of that is mandated by the court-ordered police reform plan called a consent decree. Some is driven by the department’s push to prevent officer suicides.

Mental health experts say that training supervisors to identify and help officers who are struggling is an essential part of ensuring officer wellness.

Beyond officer survival, experts and police officials agree that any move toward reforming the Chicago Police Department will rely on officers being mentally healthy. The idea is that if officers are going to provide constitutional policing then they need to be clear-eyed and calm when they approach high-stress encounters with citizens.

And that will take leaders who model good mental health practices and look out for the officers who work under them.

Mental Health Cops
A screen shot of a Zoom call training CPD officers in mental health techniques. Patrick Smith / WBEZ

During the training, Dubois talked about the need for officers to “downshift” during and after stressful encounters, to make sure they are ready and calm before their next encounter. He said officer mental health is the “first step to de-escalation,” which is when officers help reduce conflict and resolve situations peacefully, rather than using their authority to resolve situations using force.

“As you're leading the officers of Chicago … think about the value of shifting yourself down every time you encounter something that's problematic,” Dubois said. “And think about the damage that can be done if we don't do that.”

Chicago Police Deputy Chief Daniel Godsel said officer wellness and resiliency have been the biggest focus of the department’s overhaul of the training for new sergeants and lieutenants.

“Even before COVID we were struggling with … officer wellness and making sure we're keeping our officers resilient and making sure they know they've got resources to reach out to if they're in crisis,” Godsel said. “[Sergeants and lieutenants] are out there on the street with our men and women. So they've got to have officer safety, wellness and resiliency at the forefront of their thoughts.”

Last week’s training was done on video conference. It’s a familiar scene in the age of coronavirus, but it’s the first time CPD has done this kind of virtual training. The virus forced CPD to shut down its training academy in March, when the class of sergeants and lieutenants was only a week into their training. Normally the promotions don’t go into effect until the training is completed.

But Godsel said the department could not afford to wait until the pandemic had passed before promoting the current class of 66 sergeants and 27 lieutenants, so it was “critical that we get them the training … that's necessary to succeed” as supervisors.

“We need strong leadership. We need supervision in the field,” Godsel said. “So we have to talk about leadership and mindset and what it means to be a mentor and a coach and a supervisor within an agency like the Chicago Police Department.”

Because the coronavirus makes traditional classroom training impossible, the department has increased the amount of field training for new sergeants and lieutenants. The newly created coronavirus curriculum includes a full week of shadowing supervisors out in the field, in between two weeks of training via video-conference. That’s a change Godsel said they’ll likely keep even after the pandemic passes.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.