THE BLOG
12/04/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

The NYPD Needs Training in Compassion

In the wake of the death of Eric Garner, and the lack of indictment of the officer who killed him, I am heart-broken. I did not know Eric, nor did I know Michael Brown before him, but my heart goes out to their family and friends. I have known premature loss of a loved one, and can at least relate at that level, even though my skin color has protected me from similar incidents to that which Eric and Michael suffered.

If you are like me, you may find it hard to not fall into deep cynicism when what feels like the millionth African-American man is unnecessarily killed by the police. You may throw your hands in the air and declare the system is broken. Or you may let your anger fuel your protests in the streets. Or you may feel fear for loved ones because you worry they will be similarly persecuted. Or you may be like me and not know how the f*ck to react, because your heart feels like it may not heal from this one.

All too often, when something seemingly outrageous occurs, such as the lack of indictment of these police officers, we want to do something. We want to let our emotions turn into actions. Perhaps before leaping into action, you can let your heart break. You can just let it be broken. You can feel the emotion you feel fully, whatever it may be, without suppressing it, running away from it, or immediately acting upon it. There is wisdom and information in these emotions. Please join me in attempting to let that wisdom manifest.

Being with our emotions does not mean we should not engage in action or work to fix a broken system. It strikes me that one aspect of what is happening in these instances is an abuse of power. I remember the first time I heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life. It had to be ended after six days because the college students who participated had morphed beyond belief. In this simulated environment, those students chosen to play guards became sadistic. Those students chosen to play prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. While the recent killings I am citing did not occur in prison, it is hard not to wonder if a similar abuse of power is playing out in police departments across America. Power anywhere can easily be abused when there appropriate checks and balances are not in place.

The NYPD has responded to the death of Eric Garner by saying they will alter its arrest tactics. Police Commissioner Bratton has said, "We are in the process of retraining the whole department on issues of the use [of] force." I am not an expect in police matters, but if I could recommend something to Commissioner Bratton it would be less discussion about use of force, more discussion about the usefulness of empathy.

Power exists. It plays out on a societal level, where we see police officers able to walk away from indictment for the murder of civilians. It also plays out on a personal level. It plays out when you are a customer paying for groceries and have a dispute with the check-out cashier. It plays out when your child refuses to eat her vegetables and you have to threaten to send her to her room. It plays out all the time on a one-to-one level. So how can each of us wield power effectively?

We can wield power most effectively from a place of compassion. I founded the Institute for Compassionate Leadership because I believe that the abuse of power in our society can change. The Institute is a place for anyone who yearns to see compassion win out over aggression and is willing to devote their career to making that so. For younger people who are still figuring out what meaningful and beneficial work looks like to them, we have our Main Track. For those mid-career and looking to infuse compassionate leadership into their existent line of work, we have our Executive Track. In both, we explore meditation as a means to become more self-aware while discussing privilege and how to genuinely manifest as leaders so as to use our personal power most effectively.

The Institute for Compassionate Leadership is based in the belief that no one should walk into a charged scenario, let their fixed idea of what is going on trump the reality of a situation, and act out of aggression. The basic training is in learning to be more present, more self-aware, and connect with others from a place of openness. Can you imagine how this training might effect the NYPD differently than a training on use of force? Commissioner Bratton: You don't have to bring faculty from the Institute in to work with your officers but you do need to offer some version of empathy training.

To clarify, empathy is different than sympathy. Sympathy is looking at someone else and feeling sorry for them. Empathy is looking at someone else and seeing that, at some core level, we all go through similar struggles. Yes,a privileged white person has a different type of struggle than an African-American living in the projects. Absolutely. Yet, we all want to love. We all want to live in safety. We all fear violence.

There are ways for our officers (and leaders in general) to learn to connect to others from a place of empathy and compassion, rather than letting their fixed ideas of a situation run the show. If compassion training was introduced into our police departments we might see a societal shift away from excessive use of force and toward a deeper understanding of what it means to defend the common good, one based in the belief that every individual in society is, in fact, basically good. Until then, my heart continues to break.