Police have positive answers to stress on the beat with innovative training

Innovative training scheme uses positive psychology to make frontline officers happier and, hopefully, more effective at their jobs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 2:58am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 2:58am

Whether it's dealing with aggressive protesters, arresting criminals or reading claims that they are biased or use excessive force, the city's 30,000 police officers are never far from emotionally charged situations.

But police chiefs believe they have a solution to help those on the front line: training that makes individual officers happier.

The force is offering courses in which trainees are exhorted to derive fun from their physical drills, fight negative thoughts, and just be "thankful for the simple things in life".

The approach is drawn from a fairly new area of study known as positive psychology. It may come in particularly handy in situations like the incident in July when teacher Alpais Lam Wai-sze swore at police officers, whom she accused of bias over their handling of a Falun Gong protest.

"We are studying a new programme to specifically train officers' resilience and also positive emotions," said superintendent Cammie Leung Ka-mei, a training officer on the pilot scheme.

Since its introduction in 2010, about 200 officers at ranks from constable to chief inspector have undergone the training and the force is now studying whether it could be offered to all officers on a voluntary basis.

"Findings show that after adversity or a negative experience, some people would slip into a downward spiral but others would bounce back," Leung said.

"Key factors accounting for such a difference are resilience and positive emotions. These are, to a certain degree, inborn, but research shows some traits, behaviours and thoughts can be trained, and can become the focus of police psychological competency training."

Resilience training might be especially useful at a time when police are having to deal with a growing number of protesters - including the rowdy and aggressive - along with their usual diet of criminals and disaffected members of the public.

Cases like teacher Lam's have led to accusations of police bias and abuse of power, as well as unfair restrictions on journalists.

With associations representing police officers in dispute with the government over the way pay is calculated, it's understandable that the stress is getting to many officers.

This is when psychological competency training may help. The term refers to a set of skills which "address the human aspect of modern policing" and will help the force become a "good service provider".

To this end, the Police College has long incorporated an element of fun into the training of the force's new recruits.

"We put the officers under quite a lot of stress to develop their resilience, but we always say to them at the beginning of the course, throughout the course, we want the training to be enjoyable," said Mark Foster, senior superintendent in charge of foundational training.

"They do a great deal of [physical training], but we want them to get enjoyment: push themselves to their limits and then enjoy it … and not to look at it as a punishment or corrective action or being pushed too hard.

"You've got to look at the benefits … and to enjoy it."

In a two-pronged approach, officers are encouraged to cultivate an attitude of gratitude while beating the gloom.

They learn to keep a gratitude journal that reminds them to always be thankful for the little things in life.

They are also taught to be aware of negative thoughts that they may not be conscious of, but that may affect their impartiality as law enforcement officers without their knowing.

"Emotions are contagious. So, if I am calm, then I'll have a better chance of influencing others," Leung said.

"If I am the officer … I will not further escalate the tension." Once, a sergeant successfully applied what he had learned when a suspect under arrest lost his temper and made a scene at a police station, Leung recalled.

"The sergeant quickly realised not to immediately brand the suspect as a troublemaker, then took a deep breath to calm himself before approaching the suspect, trying to calm him down as well," she said.

Supervisors at the sergeant level or above learn coaching skills and how to listen to subordinates who are experiencing a build-up of negative emotions.

Apart from ensuring the mental well-being of officers, the force launched the Living the Values programme in 1997 to promote one of its eight police values. A different value is chosen every two years or so.

The eighth value - the acceptance of responsibility and accountability - will take prominence from early this year after the theme topped an internal vote.

"Our colleagues, especially those of the higher ranks, realise that responsibility and accountability are the values most expected from a policeman or any public officer holder," said John Tse Chun-chung, a superintendent from the service quality wing.

"The fact the theme is chosen by the officers themselves shows their readiness to respond to the ever-changing expectations of the force from society."