More than a practice: Meditation offers benefits to police officers, victims

Officer Matthew Kenny takes role as meditation teacher in years following fatal shooting

MADISON, Wis. – The Madison Police Department is offering its officers a new tool – one that has the potential to improve performance and reduce stress.

“You can’t alter the past, but you can affect the future,” Officer Matt Kenny said to a room full of police recruits with their eyes shut, focusing on their breath. It was the start of a day of training at Academy. Before testing would begin, the recruits settled in to a guided meditation session — a new sort of tactical training that Kenny said makes the Madison Police Department unique in the nation.

Police officers, like other first responders, face high stress situations regularly, which can contribute to burnout and depression. Research shows more police officers die by their own hand than are killed in the line of duty. It also suggests mindfulness may help with stress.

Police Department Provides New Training

Developing a sense of balance can mean finding stillness. That’s what police recruits Hunter Lisko and Fabiola Ortiz learned before making it to patrol as the second class to receive formal mindfulness training during Academy.

“Every day is different, presents new challenges, new encounters,” Lisko said.

“I was expecting highs and lows,” Ortiz said of her experience at the Academy. “That’s what this job will entail.”

“It’s like pressing the reset button,” Lisko said, adding that it didn’t take long for him to feel the benefits. “We can always return and regulate ourselves using our breath.”

“I think I was pleasantly surprised,” said Ortiz, who had an established practice already. “It gives me a sense of relaxation.”

“As soon as the dust settles from a highly traumatic call, what is available to you to use to down regulate?” Kenny said.

After an injury left him unable to work out ten years ago — his usual form of stress-relief — Kenny found a way to exercise his mind.

“One thing I could do is meditate,” he said. “Acknowledging yes, this is occurring, but I can choose my response to this. That’s mindfulness.”

A Tragedy Shakes the Community

In 2015, Kenny responded to a home on Willy Street that ended with him shooting and killing 19-year-old Tony Robinson. The young man wasn’t armed.

That led to multiple protests against Kenny and his department, then more when the district attorney ruled the fatal shooting was lawful, clearing Kenny of wrongdoing and allowing him to stay on the force. Marches continued on anniversaries of Robinson’s death.

Years later, the city settled a civil suit with Robinson’s family, paying them $3.5 million — the largest payout of its kind ever in Wisconsin.

Kenny was also involved in a fatal shooting in 2007 that was ruled “suicide by cop.”

“People ask me how am I still here? This is how. This practice,” Kenny said. “One of the things we need to do for our own health and wellness and well-being is to be able to perform at our best at these critical incidents, but then for the sake of our families, loved ones and ourselves, we also need to be able to down-regulate the inevitable stress we will experience from these incidents.”

In the years since, meditation has become more than a practice for Kenny. About two years ago, he found himself taking a path he didn’t see coming — becoming a meditation teacher to instruct new police recruits on his go-to tool to cope with the stress of the job.

“Meditation is not just for down-regulating your own body’s response to stressful events. It’s not just performance improvement,” he said. “Meditation can also be very healing, I find. That’s why teaching is important to me.”

‘Better than Any Medications’: A Tool for Healing

As a mother, you don’t move on from the death of a child, but Andrea Johnson is finding ways to move forward.

“I can’t go back. I can’t change what happened,” said Johnson, Tony Robinson’s mother. “I miss my son. I love my son. I’d give anything, but that’s not… you can’t go back.”

After her son Tony was killed, meditation helped her navigate her new existence.

“My mind just stopped and it was the most amazing feeling,” Johnson said. “From that point, I just fell in love with it.”

Through her work in human services, Johnson recommends meditation to her clients. She said her daily meditation practice helps slow her racing mind and accept what she can’t control.

“It’s a benefit for me. It’s better than any medications,” she said. ”If I cannot feel heartbreak, I wouldn’t, but you know, I do.”

She said it’s not about denying the heartbreak, or the anger, or the stress, but finding a way to live with it.

“I just acknowledge the things that are,” Johnson said.

There was a time that Robinson’s family fought to keep the man who killed Tony off the force. Five years after her son’s death, Johnson says, for her own sake, she’s finding ways to let go of negativity.

“I don’t wish any bad on him. I forgave him a long time ago,” she said. “At the end of the day, I hope he’s able to be at peace with himself, so that situations that have happened never happen again.”

Johnson views the department’s focus on meditation through a lens of hope.

“I think it’s a positive thing,” she said. “Mindfulness is never going to be negative. Never, no matter the situation.”

Meditation can’t erase what happened in the past, but individually, it’s helping Johnson and Kenny change their future.

“I choose to leave the ugly where it is and take everything that’s positive, everything I can learn, and make me a better person and go forward,” Johnson said. “I feel like that’s how I honor my son.”

“We should be performing our job to the best of our ability,” Kenny said. “Citizens expect it. We owe it to them and ourselves.”