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Buddhism and the Badge

This article was published in USA Today on August 20, 2003.
It accompanied a live chat session with Thich Nhat Hanh. You can read the transcript of the chat here.


“MADISON, Wis. — An internationally known Buddhist monk who teaches non-violence will lead a five-day retreat for police officers and others in public service here to help them handle job-related stress.

At least 12 city police officers are among more than 500 workers and their families scheduled to attend the retreat starting Monday. The retreat will include meditation, silent meals and instruction in the practice of “mindfulness,” a basic tenet of Buddhism to be aware of the consequences of one’s actions. The retreat will also offer golf, swimming and hiking.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced tick-not-hawn) will lead the retreat, which is called “Protecting and Serving Without Stress or Fear.” It is billed as a health and wellness event for those in “community service … desiring a more peaceful, non-violent way of life.” (Chat with Thich Nhat Hanh on Buddhism, mindfulness and stress at 7 p.m. ET.)

Capt. Cheri Maples, the Madison Police Department’s director of training and recruiting, organized the retreat. She says it is non-sectarian. “This is not about converting anyone,” says Maples, a practicing Buddhist. “This is just about giving people another coping tool.”

Madison police officials say the retreat is secular and is not sanctioned by the city. Police officers will be given leave to attend, but they must pay the $600 cost.

Constitutional questions

Organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have objected. “Just as the city may not promote Christianity, Judaism or Islam, it may not advance Buddhism,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, says in a letter to the city. “Encouraging (officers) to go to a religious retreat doesn’t pass constitutional muster.”

Maples says she has received hundreds of similar letters and e-mails.

Nhat Hanh, an exiled Vietnamese monk, is among the most respected Buddhist leaders and is nearly as revered as the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1960s by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The retreat is aimed at police and other public-service workers in stressful jobs, such as firefighters, prosecutors and paramedics, and their families. “Together we will look deeply into the challenging situation we face in serving our communities, in our work places, as well as in our families and our personal lives,” a brochure for the retreat says.

Police officers who have problems in their personal lives often attribute them to the stress of their job. Fewer than 100 police officers, on average, die yearly in the line of duty nationwide, but as many as 300 commit suicide each year, according to a 1999 FBI study. The study showed that the police suicide rate — 22.1 per 100,000 — is twice the rate in the general population.

“Cops are taught to ‘stuff’ their feelings deep inside. At some point that black hole gets full and manifests itself in violence, alcohol, gambling or other undesirable behaviors,” says Renae Griggs, a former South Florida police officer who runs the National Police Family Violence Prevention Project.

Kevin Gilmartin, who has written extensively about police stress and is a consultant to police departments, says police officers work in a constant state of “hyper-vigilance.” In their off hours, mundane chores such as mowing the lawn can’t provide the same intensity as their work.

“Police have to view the world as one big felony in progress,” Gilmartin says. “That’s a tough way to live.”

Buddhism may seem an unlikely antidote to the stresses of fighting crime. But Maples says stereotyping police officers as tough and insensitive is part of the problem, especially in Madison, a traditionally liberal city of 214,000 that is the state capital and home to the University of Wisconsin.

Few rank-and-file officers have objected to the retreat, says Officer Scott Faber, the department’s union representative.

“We’re a different kind of department,” he says. “Most of our officers have four-year degrees. And we have a higher number of women (32%) than any other police department.”

The difference is clear for Maples, who has a law degree and a master’s degree in social work. Before she became a police officer 19 years ago, at age 31, she was an advocate for battered women.

“A lot of the skills that work so well in policing don’t work so well at home,” she says. In searching for ways to handle stress, she went to her first Buddhist retreat in 1990, led by a follower of Nhat Hanh.

Monastery visit

Last year, she spent three weeks at Nhat Hanh’s monastery, Plum Village near Bordeaux in the south of France. During the visit, she reconciled the idea of being a police officer with a respect for life that includes not killing any living creature. “One of the nuns said to me, ‘Who else would we want to carry a gun except someone who does it mindfully,’ ” Maples recalls.

She says the idea was so powerful to her that she invited Nhat Hanh to Wisconsin to talk about policing and the principle of mindfulness. He is also scheduled to lecture in Chicago; Denver; Boulder, Colo.; Estes Park, Colo.; and Washington, D.C., where he will give a talk and offer a retreat for members of Congress titled “Leading With Courage and Compassion.”

Mindfulness is essentially total awareness of what is happening at each particular moment and deciding how to respond in that moment, Maples says.

Responding to stress with compassion and kindness, rather than cynicism, would allow a police officer to do the job and go home at night without anger, Maples says.

Lynn of Americans United still objects.

“Religion plays many positive roles,” says Lynn, who is an ordained minister. “But government is not supposed to be the preacher of religious values, whether Buddhist or fundamentalist Christian.”

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