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Calm, cool cops take yoga in East Bay for clarity

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) – “Inhale shoulders come in and up,” said San Leandro resident Beth Zygielbaum to a room of people on yoga mats.

This is a unique yoga class. It’s being taught at an East Bay police department. Cops in child’s pose.

“We have a lot of closet yoga people here that won’t admit it,” laughed Chief Jeff Tudor, San Leandro Police Department.

Fed-up with national news reports of racial disparities in policing and cases of excessive force Zygielbaum simply called her local police chief. “I was just calling to find out what the heck was going on. I was calling as a concerned citizen,” she explained.

The chief called her back right away. I conversation followed, then an offer to help in the best way she knew how, as a certified yoga instructor Zygeilbaum volunteered to instruct officers and police staff. Her goal is to teach officers mindfulness as a way to help reduce use of force.

Officer Alex Hidas took the class then hit the police station gym.

“Do you buy into the idea of mindfulness,” asked ABC 7 News Reporter Katie Utehs.

Ofc. Hidas responded as he peddled on a stationary bike, “Absolutely. I’ve experienced several times where I’m out there and I can feel my body, I can feel under stress, the adrenaline pumping, and your fine motor skills kind of go out the window and what brings you back is being able to control your breathing.”

“Anecdotally at least the effects seem to be positive,” said Professor Jack Glaser. He’s a social psychologist and Associate Dean of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Glaser launched a study this fall about mindfulness and policing.

“It appears to have a lot of benefits that could be relevant to policing both in terms of the performance of their job and in terms of emotional welfare that they experience,” said Glaser.

This study will look at mindfulness as a deterrent to racial profiling. Simply put, participants will be shown pictures depicting police scenarios and potential suspects. One group will be lead through a mindfulness meditation before doing the exercise. The other group will just look at the pictures.

The goal is to determine if mindfulness can help people set aside racial biases in their decision making. The photos and scenarios were developed with the help of an Oakland police officer. Once the mindfulness experiment is done with people from the general population it’ll be refined and done with officers.

Glaser says the excessive force is another potential area where mindfulness could help change an policing outcome.

“All of the things that lead-up to that split second decision are where the opportunities lie for avoiding that happening at all and mindfulness, I think, has great potential for just that sort of thing,” he said.

While the study will take a couple years Chief Tudor isn’t waiting. He’s building a wellness program at his department with the aim of improving officer health. The program includes gym facilities, nutrition and sleep courses, yoga, and more for all department employees. Officers are allowed to use flextime to fit in workouts between calls during their shifts.

“With that health becomes a more patient officer and that’s what our communities expect and deserve,” explained Chief Tudor.

Tudor said police departments face the challenge of having officers injured on the job and out on workmen’s compensation claims. The wellness program protects the investment that the department has made in its officers. Strength and flexibility training can help prevent injuries from getting out of a patrol car, a foot pursuit, or other physical activities required of officers.

“It’s been a long time come,” said Ofc. Hidas.

“If I can in any way impact them by providing them with some tools or some knowledge that can better their lives that’s the ultimate goal,” said Chief Tudor.

“They have a higher divorce rate, they have a higher suicide rate than the general population and it’s a tough job,” said Prof. Glaser.

The theories are simple: healthier people make better officers and more mindful officers make better decisions.

“I can’t imagine going forward that every department wouldn’t have something similar to this,” said Ofc. Hidas.

San Leandro Police Department’s wellness program is funded within the existing budget. Gym equipment has been purchased with money from asset forfeiture and donations from the police officer’s association.

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