Cheri Maples — The Human Challenges of Police Work

Cheri Maples — The Human Challenges of Police Work

Listen to, read, and download Krista Tippett's 2015 conversation with former police officer and dharma teacher Cheri Maples on the human and structural challenges of police work.

Krista Tippett: A place I like to start all my interviews these days is just hearing a little bit about whether there was a religious or spiritual background to your childhood.

Cheri Maples: No, actually. It's interesting because my mother was pregnant with me and so my parents got married, my dad was in the service at the time, and the biggest conflict between the families was was I going to be raised or baptized Catholic or Methodist. So my grandparents were very strong religious people. My father's parents in Catholicism, my mother's were Methodists. And my paternal grandmother won that battle. But neither one of my parents were very religious. So I didn't end up going to church much. In fact when I did go, they usually sent me off with some neighbors. And so I ended up at a lot of different churches. And what was so interesting about that is that I, as a young child, I realized that every one of these places, even though they were different was telling me theirs was the only way. And the scariest one was a Baptist church where somebody was really doing the brimstone. And was telling me that I would go to hell if I didn't invite the Lord into my heart. So afterwards he says 'who would like the key to your heart? Who would like to invite the Lord in your heart?' And I raised my hand 'Me, me, me!' and I go into this little room and things are said but I never got the actual key to my heart, which I was promised. So I was very worried.

Krista Tippett: I'm sorry about that and I'm assuming that you never heard anything about Vietnamese Zen Buddhism

Cheri Maples: No. Never.

Krista Tippett: And then how and when did you — how and why did you become a police officer?

Cheri Maples: Well, I became a police officer in 1984 and one of the reasons is I had — there were four children that my partner and I were raising at the time. We added a fifth to the mix. And I was very athletic. And I had a Master's in social work and I had a field student that I supervised in a social work setting who came back and kind of recruited me. And said 'Cheri, you know, really what we do is we're social workers, we're crisis intervention workers with guns. And one of the main motivators for me is back then wages were so so disparate between men and women. And I knew working in a male-dominated profession that I get paid. So that was a real motivator for me. But I had the skills, I think. I really enjoyed using my body. I was very athletic. I enjoyed being outside. I enjoyed the idea of everything being different and not being behind a desk. And the other thing that was real different here is that there was a very young progressive police chief in Madison.

Krista Tippett: Was that here in Madison at that point in time?

Cheri Maples: In Madison. He came here right after the Vietnam war riots when the police were just so up in arms and being criticized, as you can imagine, from every corner. And he had billboards up that said "Join the next Peace Corps: the Madison Police Department."

Krista Tippett: Interesting. Wow, wow. Well, so, we're speaking at a moment where the police is suddenly this very fraught idea, symbol, discussion in American culture. And I found you. And obviously nothing that's happening now is never happened before. But there seems to be just this confluence of all these events at once.

And I was interested to find you writing in 2013 about the death of a local musician in Madison who was shot by a police officer and a moment of great grief and anger in that community. And you wrote "I see the competing underlying philosophical tensions in policing once again rearing their old and familiar heads. Are we a paramilitary profession protecting the community from bad guys? Or are we a community-oriented profession building public safety through community?" And I feel like, you know, that is precisely — I mean that philosophical question has kind of surfaced as a cultural question now and and it's stated so well, so clearly.

Cheri Maples: Do you want me to comment on that?

Krista Tippett: Yeah, it's just a conversation.

Cheri Maples: Well, I think the big problem with what's going on in policing right now is that the community has lost its trust in police officers' ability to use state-sanctioned power responsibly. And, of course, we're the only ones that have access to legal violence. And the safety of both community members and police officers is threatened when that happens. So, the excessive use of any kind of force, especially when we're talking about force that is deadly, affects each and every police officer. Police officers aren't too comfortable right now across the country... As well as each and every member of the community. And one incident can undo months and months building the foundation of community trust. And I think one of the main problems that we've faced since 9/11 — 9/11 is when we defined or started talking about a war on terrorism. And when you have a war on terrorism, of course, the thing is you never have to define totally who you're at war with. And that's when the militarization of our police department started. And it started a lot because that's where the federal money was. Now in the '80s and '90s, the federal money was in the grants and building neighborhood capacity. And all the sudden, this switched over to the ability to buy more, what I call "boys toys," tanks and riot equipment and mobile vans. And the police really started to militarize. And the training followed that. And of course there are very, very different missions in the military and the police department. In the military, we're supposedly fighting the, quote "enemy," unquote. But police officers are protecting and serving the members of their own community. And they're building public safety and they should do that by creating informal safety nets around disenfranchised people and take advantage of tools that build both neighborhood in community capacities. That's the best possible way to provide public safety.

Krista Tippett: I mean I should have said this before we started talking. I don't know how much Lily explained when you spoke. I mean, one reason I want to talk to you is because I feel like in all the emotion and all the discussion that's happening the voice that is silent now really is the voice of police officers and especially of good police officers. And I think it's important that even as real problems get addressed, if we just demonize the police that doesn't actually bring us farther as a culture. So, I really do want to talk to you as somebody who sees all this from the inside.

And I find, you know, I have found you wise on that since I first met you. And actually I listened again to that conversation we had back in 2002 at that retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, who you had — I mean, you were not yet ordained, you were still a police woman, or a cop, as you always said. But you'd started to be a student of those teachings. And I, you know, when you were I was listening back to what you said to me that over a decade ago, about the hyper-vigilance that happens when you're a cop. And kind of that life and how it works on you from the inside and how you realized that it had worked on you from the inside. I just started feeling like that's part of this whole story that we're not hearing, that we're not telling. So I mean, and you know when I when I met you over a decade ago, as I said, when you'd begun to be a student of Thich Nhat Hanh. And as you said, to commit yourself to this nonviolent practice while being a person who was also committed to carrying a gun for a living. I wonder, you know, I've seen you describe yourself at that point as becoming aware that you had become, you'd taken on qualities that you didn't want to have of anger and cynicism and apprehension. I mean, you know, that thing I read a minute ago they wrote about, you know, are we a paramilitary profession or are we a community-oriented profession building public safety. I mean, was that philosophical tension alive in you, I wonder, in your early years in the police force?

Cheri Maples: Well, intellectually it was but I'll tell you, that's why mindfulness proved to be so helpful to me in my career because without tools of awareness, cynicism and an armored heart are almost built into the job. And none of us I think intend that to be the case, but police officers see people at their worst. And they need the support of their communities. People generally don't call us when things are going well for them. I mean, I think anybody can think of themselves when was the last time you were happy to see one of us in your rear view mirror or at your house. We get it. And we get a first hand dose of seeing the effects of poverty and racism and violence and exploitation every single day. And this daily exposure to repetitive acts of violence and violations affects police officers. And I think one of the things that's really hard about that is that organizationally we find ourselves as part of the larger culture that makes it very difficult to accept very predictable symptoms that develop in response to the work itself. And I know in my own police department the the culture and institutional structures of the department made it difficult to recognize those symptoms early on, yet less to receive help for them. So if you're somebody who understands what's happening to you and wants to proactively do something about it, and you want to see somebody, in a lot of departments the problem is is the discrediting and suggestions of unfitness for the job are common responses to anybody who has distress reactions. So even if we are aware of what's happening we may be in the catch 22 of not being able to get help without jeopardizing our credibility. And that's one of the things I think that really has to change in policing is that we have to make everybody that works in the criminal justice system more aware of the effects of their job on them over time and give them resources to navigate those effects.

Krista Tippett: And I want to go deeper into all of this. So there's there's that piece of self-awareness, which I have to say, you know, has not been evident, at least in some of the very high-profile public things which have happened recently. And then there's the militarization that you that you talked about since since 9/11 and which is a whole other I mean it not only would undercut that kind of self-awareness or culture, but it really works in opposition to it. Right? It's a very complicated picture that you start to get of the human dimension, the human dimension of police forces and policing in this country.

Cheri Maples: Well, what I think is going to have to happen to change things is that the community itself, the public, is going to have to realize that they are not just the effects of somebody else providing public safety, that they are also responsible for participating in the agreements that determine public safety norms. Right now I see three problematic areas of norms that have to be changed for things to get better and if you want me to I can delineate them. But I think the public is going to have to participate in reshaping some of the norms that drive the police department. And it has happened where people have organized peacefully to put pressure on the police department. You know, one of the big issues is deadly force and deadly force policies. And in my own community what really made me get involved after the young man was shot is that at the press conference where it was announced that there would be no discipline of the officer and that he would be fully exonerated it was implied that not only were the actions of the officer justified, but it might have even been somewhat negligent for any officer to have started lower on the use of force continuum. And to me that represented a new standard of deadly force in the community that I certainly didn't want to accept even as a former police officer. And I'm sure the community didn't want to accept it.

Krista Tippett: You know, what I started to think about as I was reading you and reading about this is how — and I think this does actually correspond to your idea that the public has a role in all of this that there's more accountability than we're perhaps even seeing. The whole idea of the militarization since 9/11. But also, you know, in our entire culture, I feel. In entertainment there's been this coarsening of these multitudinous images and story lines that we take as entertainment that are about violence, torture, deadly force. I mean life, you know, and I watch these shows too, right? Homeland, 24. I think they're terrific. But it almost — and you didn't directly make that connection. But you start to see a whole picture of how we as a culture have given in to these images in which, you know, the use of deadly — there's this swagger. And there's this coarsening of our sense of life in dramatic moments not meaning as much. I don't know.

Cheri Maples: Well, I think you're really on to something. And one of the things that people don't understand or think about I think is I don't care who you are, but for any officer who uses deadly force his or her life is changed forever. And when you see these shows, it's like, you shoot 'em up. You shoot up four or five people in one week and you come back and you do it and then the next no emotional. Exactly. No emotional effects whatsoever and that is just not the way that it happens. And it also shapes what people think policing is about. And policing, as I alluded to earlier, the great majority of what we do is crisis intervention. People turn to us when they don't have anybody else to turn to and arrest is just one of many tools that we have in our tool bag to use. And it's not even the most predominant way that police officers respond. But because of I think the way that we're portrayed in the media, in movies, and T.V. we don't take credit for the great majority of the work we do. It's not sexy enough or something. So, people turn to us when they don't have anybody else left.

Krista Tippett: Yeah. Here's something your wrote. "We don't want to take credit for that pansy, touchy feely social worker crap. We don't want you to see us as compassionate caring people. We want you to see us in the way we are portrayed on T.V. We're the omnipotent small gang of armed good guys chasing the ever growing ever invisible gang of bad guys. But I think that point you're making, which is the premise at the beginning of that thought is that most of what police officers do is crisis intervention, is what did you say at the beginning when you were first thinking about becoming a police officer? Somebody said to you it's crisis intervention while carrying a gun?

Cheri Maples: Yeah. A social worker with a gun.

Krista Tippett: A social worker with a gun and that's not the story of you know that work that we're at all aware of, especially now.

Cheri Maples: Well, and I think that can be attributed to a number of things, but one of the other things that you never hear the word compassion associated with good quality. Well, I think in interviews for the job you do if somebody said they were a compassionate person that that would count but as the job gets going — and this is true of the larger collective and political dialogue too. The whole idea of compassion is left out of the discussion. In fact, it's almost looked at as a quality that we should avoid talking about because others will consider it a sign of weakness. And this holds true for police officers but it holds true for leaders and activists. If we're compassionate, others will exploit us and take advantage of us. So I think compassion gets really marginalized in the whole discussion.

Krista Tippett: So is that something that you — how did you become aware of that in your career, in your life as a police — on the police force?

Cheri Maples: Well, one of the most the strongest feedback that I got was right after I came back from my first Thich Nhat Hanh retreat, which I went to in 1991. I almost ended up there by, you know, you choose either a miracle or an accident. But, you know, when I went there I still had quite a chip on my shoulder and, you know, built of anger formed by not only my own personal conditioning and life experiences but my work experiences. And I had extreme doubts that Thay's teachings could be incorporated into my life and work as a cop. And I was positive that if any of these other people at the retreat found out I was a cop I was sure to be judged in hurtful ways, as I had many times. People see the uniform. They make certain assumptions about you. But, at that very first retreat, Thay did find out that I was a cop who carried a gun for a living and he asked me a question. You know, we were talking about the mindfulness trainings and reverence for life. And I was saying, well 'I can't take this mindfulness training, I carry a gun for a living.' And he turned it all around for me when he asked the question 'Who else would we want to carry a gun except somebody who will do it mindfully.' And over the years, as time went on, he really did convince me that carrying a gun for a living can be an act of love if you're also armed with mindfulness and compassion. And he also convinced me that part of the skill set of a police officer was having the ability to employ both the gentle compassion of understanding, when that's called for. But also the fierce compassion of setting boundaries to protect others and and having the wisdom to know when each is called for. And I think the most important thing that Thay over the years inspired in me was to really focus on my intention with respect to the calls I was responding to. And I found that it was possible to start any call or street interaction with a commitment to the intention of stopping and preventing further harm from occurring. That doesn't mean that force was never going to be required. But if the intention is to stop and prevent further harm from occurring, then the gun and badge become symbols of skillful means rather than simply symbols of authority and power. Cornel West said something that I just love because so much of my life has been about working for justice. And what he said is "justice is what love looks like in public." "Justice is what love looks like in public." And this implies that we can only work for justice from this deep place of caring for each other that's based on an understanding of our interdependence with each other. So it's a totally different mindset.

Krista Tippett: And I hear you saying that that also can be lived as a police officer. It's also not hard to see how how exacting it would be to live that way that you just described. I mean, you know, the way you talk about the intention that we bring into any situation and that would be true in any workplace for example or any family is going to shape the interaction that happens. If we come in angry. If we come in in-compassionate even if hard things have to be said. But it's, you know, it's not that hard even now, with all of this with all these terrible stories in front of us. It's not that hard to understand that that kind of mindfulness would be difficult to implement and practice in extreme moments, in extremely dangerous moments in which police officers find themselves.

Cheri Maples: Well, I have two responses to that. That's true. It's true. And, you know, most of us in our lives have an opportunity to experience moments of sort of — events that just bring up this natural compassion in us. But police officers are in a lot of situations where we experience the impulses of fear and reaction and resistance and these emerge very quickly and powerfully and they can propel us into aggression, and a solidity of self, and that's true for the people that we're dealing with too. I think of the the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson. And I think that if both Michael Brown and the officer responding to him. They both experienced those impulses of fear, reaction and resistance and aggression. But if either of them could have stepped out of that fear, reactivity, aggression and resistance. If either of them could have stepped out of it Michael Brown would be alive. And one of the real problems that has come about in this area is how police officers are trained. Not only do we not train them to look at the emotional effects of the job on them, but...

Krista Tippett: ...On themselves you mean.

Cheri Maples: Right. On themselves. But we train them to anticipate trouble everywhere. And we know research tells us, it's not just from a mindfulness practice that we know this, but research tells us that energy follows thought. So what we do or don't do becomes a very strongly conditioned pathway in the brain. Right. And as police officers we're taught to anticipate troubling threats coming unexpectedly from everywhere all the time. And the more that our minds are primed to anticipate trouble, the more we're geared toward fear and aggression, and not taking risks to affirm and explore other potential ways of being. So we let everything that could possibly go wrong. In any given response. That's how we train. And we let that justify or impede our ability to cultivate more creative ways of being with people. So in other words we could have 99 traffic stops that go absolutely right with no problem, but we're going to train for that one that goes to hell. Right? And so that's what we're expecting every time we walk up to a car. And that is one of the problems. I think in terms of the tactical scenarios and how people are trained, we don't train enough for what to do when things go right.

Krista Tippett: And it's interesting to me because you said something similar to me when we spoke ten years ago. But what we've learned about the brain since then has just, right? This whole field has opened up and that these physiological responses are something we can see now. I mean you talked then to me also about that and this is what you're describing this hyper vigilant state that you get into. That then if you don't find very proactive other ways or you're not trained with other ways to get out of that state it's so powerful, so powerful in us.

Cheri Maples: It is. And I think anybody who's ever been running on fast forward. And has a rush of adrenaline to accompany that, to get it done, can understand this to a certain degree. Because hyper vigilance is about adrenaline increasing. And what research shows is that police officers often function above the normal level of adrenaline so it spikes. And what goes up must come down. And the research shows that the body can recover within 24 hours from a kind of spike. But what do we do? We go back to work before that time is up. So you get these spikes where, you know, on the job you're quick on your feet you can make command decisions, you've got a sense of humor, and you go home and a lot of the symptoms mimic depression that happen. You just have no energy and you become a couch potato and a channel surfer. You can't make decisions. There's a lot of procrastination in decision making. I remember coming home one morning and stopping to get some cereal for the kids for breakfast. I'm coming home from a night shift and I think I remember the clerk said 'do you want paper or plastic?' And I was like, 'Huh? You decide. That's too big a decision to make.'

Krista Tippett: And there's also this racial dimension to, especially what's just happened over and over again lately and I just wonder, from your experience how do you think this piece of it through? How can you kind of start to describe that from the inside.

Cheri Maples: Well, I think that one of the things that has to happen is that and it's not just police officers that racial disparities get worse within each part of the system. In other words, who gets stopped? Who gets arrested? And who gets sentenced to prison? And what happens once people are in prison? All those things get worse in terms of racial disparities, but I think — when I was the captain of personnel and training I used to insist on unconscious bias training. And how that can show up in our work. And I don't think that the majority of police officers are sitting in briefing thinking one race is superior to another but I try to make an analogy to to how this works.

So let's say that people who drive people can be categorized as driving Fords, Dodges, Chevys, or Toyotas. And let's say police officers believe the people who drive Fords are the most likely to commit crimes. Even though that's not true. And research shows that's not true. Well, then you're going to sit outside Ford dealerships. And you're going to go where you think Ford drivers might be and because you stop many more of them, you're also, many more of them than you do the other drivers, you're also going to arrest more of them, which is then going to... ...feed that bias. perpetuate your own bias and I think these things show up. So I think what the answer to some of this is that decision making points — and this isn't just in the criminal justice system, I think this can be for any organization. But the decision making points that can be affected by conscious or unconscious bias have to be identified and examined.

For example, police officers are real familiar with what's called FATS training. And what it is, it's this facsimile training of whether or not, shoot, don't shoot scenarios. But people go through these things. Well, you know, we could use that same training for stopping cars. And, you know, gave officers really talk through all the reasons why they're stopping this car or person. Because those decision making points in the criminal justice system are defined by who police officers decide to stop and who they decide to arrest. And then who DAs decide to prosecute. And who judges decide to sentence. And who parole boards decide to parole.

And so this would be like kind of proactively overwriting reflexive unconscious or just by engaging that awareness our capacity to think things through and talk them through as you say...

Krista Tippett: ...bring things to a conscious level.

Cheri Maples: I think that's how you change things in any organization is you know, the way you build ethics is you bring the unconscious and unwritten things that are going on. Now, there might be a policy manual but people in policing are socialized to their peers. They're dependent on each other for their safety.

So one of the first things that happens is you get out of training and you ride with some veteran who says 'OK, rookie, that was how it was in there and this is how it is on the street.' And I think that one of the things that just has to happen is that we have to go through this training where we are really forced to identify or bring into an open arena of conscious dialogue some of the things that we agreed to, not just things like who to stop for what but, you know, 'OK. If I take a free cup of coffee, what does that mean? Should it happen or shouldn't it?' You can ask questions. You can ask questions about these things and you'll be surprised. That's what I used to do is I used to try to engage people in discussions with questions. And they didn't always have an easy answer. But then you start uncovering some of the things that people are socialized to that they just take for granted. And having them examine them in a new light. And I think that's how you build ethics in any organization is you take those unconscious unwritten things that people are socialized to. In some organizations, it's taking an hour and a half for lunch , you know? And you just bring them into the conscious arena for dialogue.

Krista Tippett: I'm really fascinated by this area of unconscious bias and implicit bias, which also has been — is deepened because of what we're learning about the brain. And I know I also am aware that there is a lot of work going on in police forces doing precisely what you're talking about bringing what is unconscious to the surface. I mean, and that's, you know, those are the kinds of stories where we're not hearing about now. I mean, do you have a sense that there's more of this different kind of training happening than we know in the moment where we're very focused on crisis points?

Cheri Maples: I'm not sure to tell you the truth. I'm really not sure. I think that 1.) How you go about this training has to happen if people have to sit through one more quote "diversity" unquote training. Yeah, they're not going to be very happy. But if you can make it interesting and participative and create an atmosphere of safety where people feel that they can actually bring things up without worrying about being politically correct, then things can happen. And I don't know that most departments are prepared to offer that kind of training.

Krista Tippett: Mm-hmm. And, you know, when you talk about changing organizational culture or changing ethics in an organization or in a profession. You know, right now one of the big fixes that we're focusing on is strapping cameras to people's bodies, which there is some evidence to suggest that that can be effective. But it's in terms of diminishing some of these results. But it's not going to change a culture or ethics. Or, I don't think, or the human beings.

Cheri Maples: No. And the other thing is is I, you know, you and I had a conversation many years ago about how I responded in a very different manner to a domestic call that happened.
And with a camera, I would have been violating lots of elements of policy and procedure.

Krista Tippett: Because you were compassionate.

Cheri Maples: Because I was compassionate. So I don't know that the cameras are the total answer either. I understand that they'll bring about accountability and that when you have a corrupt police department then they will make a big difference. But I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I would have some concerns about going that route totally.

Krista Tippett: As the only, yeah. Yeah. I hear what you're saying. There's a downside. So, let me just ask you then, you know, really directly. I mean, we've been doing this a bit, but you know, as you watch our cultural reaction to these events and, you know, all of the dynamics. How the story's being told on the news. How people are responding. As a as a person who has been a police officer, and has focused, both as a police officer and since you left the police force, still in the justice system and on mindful justice, I mean how are you reacting to this discussion? And what questions are you longing to inject? Or what are you wishing we'd be shining a light on that you're not hearing about?

Cheri Maples: Well, one thing we are hearing about a little bit is that if we go back to "justice is what love looks like and public." I mean, we know that all things arise due to causes and conditions. So we have to realize that what we do in response to the shooting deaths of members of our communities matters. And what we care about matters. And what pathways we cultivate in our hearts and minds in response to these tragedies matter. I did not have a very pleasant time right after the shooting when I spoke, in my own community, when I spoke at a public event and I called for compassion and identified it as the invitation to cross you know this divide that separates "us" from "them." I could just feel this "us" and "them" forming. And what I wanted the police officers to do is to really be with the families and understand what it would be like to experience just the suffocating and unbearable grief of losing a child, or a brother, or a friend. And what I want the community to understand is something I said before, that for any officer who uses deadly force, even when it is justified, his or her life is changed forever. But what would it be like to be the officer who's the subject of absolute scorn and ridicule in these situations. So, do we believe in a compassionate and peaceful response only when we're not directly affected by injustice? I mean, you know, can we have compassion for both the family and the police officer in any way? What can we do as a community? And how can we respond to these things? And I think the demonstrations have made a huge difference but again how can we...

Krista Tippett: ...In a good way?

Cheri Maples:  ...in a good way. But it's important with the exception of when they've gotten violent that we remember the intention is to stop to prevent further harm. So how can we use that anger? How do we go about recovering from these incidents? It's going to be necessary for police departments to build bridges to repair the harm that they've created. And it's going to be necessary for community members to ask themselves how they can use that anger to work constructively for change. I remember the Dalai Lama telling us that anger is often justified and appropriate but concretizing the other into an enemy is never justified. And I think that's what starts to happen here.

Krista Tippett: You know, when I was when I was getting ready to interview you, my producer, you know, did some research. And we found this blog post online, which a Jewish blogger actually had put up just recently. And actually, referring back to that retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh that I came to over ten years ago and interviewed you at. And he was remembering Thich Nhat Hanh. I was remembering that I asked Thay. How did he prepare himself to bring his mindfulness teaching to diverse audiences? So how would his teaching be different with a group of spiritual leaders or a group of police officers, which there were a lot of police officers and people working in the criminal justice system at that retreat and he said 'I ask myself, what is the unique suffering endured by this group?' And, you know, right now in our culture it would feel counterintuitive to suggest a part of our cultural response should be to think about the suffering of the police. But I think I also hear you saying that in a nuanced way.

Cheri Maples: Well, do you remember at that retreat when the police officers talked about their jobs with the community? where you at that session?

Krista Tippett: No I wasn't at that session. Tell me.

Cheri Maples: Well, it was one of the most amazing — Thay actually asked if we were going to hear from the police officers. And so there were a whole group of police officers that got up in front of these five hundred people, and a couple of spouses, and talked about what their job is like for them on a daily basis. And I don't think that they had ever been in a position to be received so dearly by people who were not police officers.

Cheri Maples: I mean, it was really one of the most amazing things that I've ever seen and it's made me think that more opportunities for that kind of thing, for understanding both ways, have to be created. But it was so — people that were at that retreat talk to me often about that being the thing they remember most from that retreat. And that affected them the most. And it is very interesting because one of the really fun things that happened when I got home from that retreat is somebody came up to me and said 'Cheri, I just saw two of your young officers arrest somebody and after they put them in the back of the car they were at the retreat they turned to me and they bowed.' And I thought wow if we can bow out to not only to the people in the community who we're keeping safe but the person we're arresting, we will have really arrived. I mean, it was just an incredible story and so magical things can happen with just a little bit of dialogue. And, you know, police officers they see a lot. They are doing this job. I mean, we understand it for the military. There's a lot of support right now for for veterans and the military among the public. And we understand that because they're doing that job, we don't have to. And to a certain extent, the same thing is true of police officers and what they see and what they deal with on a nightly basis. And they need the support of their communities. There is a lot of suffering there.

Krista Tippett: I remember hearing recently someone who's worked for a long time with the with the Los Angeles Police Department talking about how at one point in the last few decades the group she's with had you know basically, I think, explicitly declared war on the L.A.P.D. And that didn't have the effect that they were looking for. And they ended up really getting in and trying to understand police officers as human beings. And also, part of their response to what they were trying to resolve was actually just getting police officers into human situations with people in the community. And once a, kind of a safe space was created that police officers talked to them about their fears. And this was actually an African-American woman. And she said, you know, they expressed this tremendous fear that they had of African-American men. Again, you know, it's hard in the moment to even say something like that and have it be taken seriously, but I don't know how — that's also what you're talking about, actually creating safe spaces for police officers to say things that also may seem irrational and be irrational but are human and part of the problem.

Cheri Maples: Well, and members of the community. I will never forget as a police officer I participated in — we had these race dialogues around the city of Madison many, many years ago. It might have been, I can't remember if it was in the late '90s or early 2000s. But there were some police officers that were a part of it. And some deep understanding happened in those groups. I'll never forget the effect of this man of color who was crying, just sobbing as he told the story of being taken out of the car and handcuffed in front of his son and the effect that that had on him. Things like that were so powerful for me and I think any time that you increase understanding, you you increase the chances of things going well.

Krista Tippett: This militarization of the culture and also of the police forces it seems to me again that this just — How hard is that? Which is really kind of overlaid, maybe, recently on top of these other dynamics. How hard is that to — does that make it harder to create these kinds of conditions and experiences and training opportunities?

Cheri Maples: Well I think it does because it affects how people are trained. When you start it affects how people are trained. But I'll tell you, I'm absolutely convinced that people will follow the federal money. So if the federal money is available for something besides the militarization of police, then you'll see that other things will start to happen. That goes back to being available for building community capacity. You'll see a lot more emphasis on that because the money will be followed. And that would be the simplest way to start turning this thing around. Because again, if the military and the police mission get confused we're in big, big trouble out there. But there are lots of creative resources out there that aren't being taken advantage of for building safety nets and community capacity. Do you want to hear about one that's going on?

Krista Tippett: Yeah. Sure. Yeah, absolutely.

Cheri Maples: Well we have this thing here called Time Banking that has basically three prongs to it. It has a neighbor-to-neighbor exchange. So what they're trying to do is change the agreements around money because let's say, for example, I'm a lawyer. I'm paid probably two hundred dollars an hour for what I do. And if I'm the kid who works at McDonald's I'm paid minimum wage. Now in the time bank one hour of my time is worth one hour of your time. And we each we trade resources. It doesn't matter who you are but the thing is you're not just bartering with the person you're training from you're bartering with a computer base of like twenty five hundred other people. And you can learn anything from Quick Books, to horseback riding lessons, to music lessons, to electrical repairs, to having your oil changed, to taking people to a doctor, or having somebody help you grocery shop, having somebody take care of your pet. And what happens is when people start to make these exchanges, the isolation that often exists in these challenged neighborhoods starts to dissipate. And you start to get a much bigger sense of neighborhood. So that's one element of it. The second element is the youth court that is really geared toward prevention that is now in all the schools. All the high schools. And I think it's making its way... ...in Madison? In Madison. I think it's making its way into the middle schools too so it's built on the assumption that with many of these tickets or offenses that young people get, they could be referred to a youth court. And there there's actually a judge advocate and a group of jurors that are their peers that are trained that have a sentence. And the sentence usually involves some sort of community work. And then if the community work is completed there's nothing that goes on the kid's record. And so it really is a prevention thing. And it's being widely used. And the third element of it is the justice component where — that is a lot of prison organizing and work.

Krista Tippett: So I think what you're pointing out there, which is kind of the trajectory your own career has taken, is expanding our imagination about public safety. And the whole canvas in which the police force operates. But it's not the only element in that.

Cheri Maples: Absolutely. I mean and I think that, you know, if you're going to build public safety, then you have to find ways to create informal safety nets around people and take advantage of any of those tools that are going to build neighborhood and community capacities because that's when public safety really, really improves. It doesn't improve with punishment and arrest so much. I mean, I have never ever known a victim who was magically cured by the punishment of a perpetrator or many perpetrators who have either repented or transformed themselves as a result of of their punishment. Because if the process starts at all it seems to be sparked by the victim's forgiveness. And that's such a big part of restorative justice that happens. And I've witnessed the power of that kind of forgiveness inside maximum security prisons. And I've witnessed the power of it inside and outside courtrooms and on the street at times too. It's not just police departments that have to have a wider thing. It's the whole criminal justice system I think that has to have a wider net.

Krista Tippett: And I think, you know, to me that also gets back to the point you made when we just started speaking about, you know, the current climate and how the challenges for the whole community not just for the police force to change. There's change that needs to happen, but you know I think when people watch the crises and the hard — the high profile events that happen. There's a sense of outrage and injustice and also powerlessness. And if the only thing to do is kind of, you know, demonize the police or change the police then there's still not a lot of entry points for ordinary people out there to be part of that. But this larger picture of thinking about public safety as a community effort is something where there might be many more entry points for ordinary people.

Cheri Maples: Well, so often we think of ourselves as the effect rather than the cause. You know how many times do you hear people come out of a meeting and say 'Man, that was a waste of time. That was really a bad meaning.' And I want to say to people, 'Were you were at the meeting?' I mean, if you were at the meeting, you helped create the meeting. It's not just a matter of being an effect it's that we all are causes of what occurs too. And if I was a police chief I certainly wouldn't say I'm in charge of public safety. But, you know, I think of Thay. Thich Nhat Hanh. And, yeah. Thich Nhat Hanh. And what he said about the the boat people leaving Vietnam during the war and what he said is that in a situation where people were without food and water for days and subject to the fear of pirates coming aboard at any time, that those who could remain calm and steady are the ones that made the difference between life and death sometimes, oftentimes. And any one of us can make an important difference that way in any given moment. So any one of us can be the person who makes a difference in a contentious interaction or meeting by bringing a calm and steady presence to it. Any one of us can be the person who rather that exacerbating pain and violence, transforms that by the way they bear witness to it or respond to it. So, I mean, I think it's really important that people understand that the critical act of engagement is when they change their attitude from critic and passive participant to being an active participant in creating this meeting, or this gathering, or this organization, and or this method of providing public safety. I mean agreements have to be changed around deadly force, around training, around who investigates deadly force, and the when the public puts pressure on the police to change, it usually happens.

Krista Tippett: I know I remember when I was reading about the events in Madison in 2013 where this man was killed and the policeman was exonerated, as you said, and you know this is a version of the scenario that's been playing itself out. And there were people wanting to say, you know, 'What do we do?' And one of the things you've said that is in that moment, there's so much grief in the room. And I think the immediate moment we're in now, there's so much grief.

Krista Tippett: I also, though, wonder if — are you talking to policemen? Are you talking to cops who are grieving? And, you know, maybe who are experiencing all of this, but whose voices we're not hearing.

Cheri Maples: Well I don't think we're hearing the police officers' voices who are grieving. I have had an opportunity to talk to some of them individually. But I think right now it's such a challenging time to be a police officer because you're almost looked at the way — what's happening is almost — can be kind of compared to what happened to the Vietnam vets when they came back they were so disenfranchised. So they went over there fought a war, came back with all this traumatic stress, and then had to deal with the traumatic stress of people at home concertizing them into the problem. And I think with everything that's happened, that's happening to the the police right now too. And grief is something that takes a while to work through and that needs tremendous patience to to work through. And that's where this second part of what I talked about with the training comes in is we've got to provide these police officers with resources to navigate and not necessarily make them optional. Because I think there are an awful lot of police officers running around with post-traumatic stress or accumulated traumatic stress. It might not be the first incident, or the second, or the third, or the fifteenth, but maybe it's the hundredth incident that you respond to that just puts you over the top and so I think I'd like to see that happen is that we would be committed to providing those kinds of resources for police officers as possible. And that it's not necessarily a choice when you've been involved in a traumatic incident to go. So often debriefing sessions happen that from a tactical perspective, what could we have done better. But they need to happen from an emotional perspective.

Krista Tippett: Right. Right. And that doesn't happen?

Cheri Maples: Well sometimes it does. But again, it takes a very skilled facilitator at those things to create a safe space where people are going to actually start talking about what happened and what was going on for them internally.

Krista Tippett: You said some, and there's this whole other side of you now that's just been weaving in and out of this but the spiritual student, spiritual teacher. You were ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh in 2008. Even as you continue to work on matters of justice. I watched, I think it was a dharma talk or a part of a discussion you gave, where you said some really interesting things about — which is a Buddhist, one of these wise Buddhist observations that we are so shaped by who our enemies are. We are so shaped by our relationship with our enemies, with the other. And I wonder, as you watch — you've pointed out that there is this kind of "us" versus "them" dynamic forming now with the police and lots of sectors of society, but how do you watch that? And how do you think about that in spiritual terms? What would it behoove us to be mindful about as that kind of dynamic takes shape?

Cheri Maples: Well I think from an individual perspective we can always ask ourselves if what we are doing in this moment is bringing about connection with others or polarization and alienation. Is it bringing about connection or separation? When we talk about compassion we're not talking about stoicism or resignation. Those are all forms of withdrawal. But we're talking about what kinds of things will bring about connection what kinds of things will allow you to be here for this person in front of you in the moment and for them to be there for you? How can this pain and suffering be transformed here right in the moment? And you know, it's so many people. It's it's a radical political act to to learn to live in more harmony with others. And to change the world or to love everybody is too big an ambition for any of us. But to be able to respond to this moment with some engagement and presence and compassion is possible for all of us. And I think that is the main thing is can we transform our fear enough to do that? Because that's what it's all about is fear of the other.

Krista Tippett: And the challenge of that is heightened when the other is a, you know, strapping police officer in a uniform who has exercised deadly force and seems themselves, you know, professes no remorse. Right? That's a very hard That's a hard other to have across from you and also imagine that it even matters.

Cheri Maples: That is a hard other to have across from you.

Cheri Maples: And that's why we need some. That's why we need direct action to go along with this. There are some police officers that should be taken off the street. And it's that simple and again I can't stress enough how communities need to look at the deadly force policies of their departments. I mean, it's such an important place to start because right now what we're using is this standard of conduct that was outlined in this case called Graham v. Connor that really outlined when an officer could be charged criminally with excessive force. And what the problem is is most departments have adopted that as their standard for deadly force. And my question is do we really want this lowest possible bar of conduct that determined not to be criminal in nature to be the departmental standard for using deadly force? And I think not because just because it might not be criminal to respond, using deadly force in any given incident, doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do ethically. And I think it's going to be very important for community members to not accept the deadly force standards of a lot of their departments. Because it's a very low bar. And it might be too scary to sit across from the officer who did this. But sometimes it can, you know, it works both ways in a way too.

I was lucky enough to work for a chief who really had a philosophy of working demonstrations. To get in and talk to the crowd. Not to stand outside of it and make police lines in showing your equipment. And one of the first demonstrations that I ever had to police as a young officer — and I was so thrilled about this because, you know, it could have been he could have been something that I really disagreed with but it was an apartheid demonstration. And I'm in there talking to the crowd and just, you know, chatting with people. And all the sudden this guy comes up to me and spits on me and says 'come on pig, hit me. I know you really want to hit me. Hit me!' And so, you know, these — again it's a uniform just, we're back to a place I think that is going to bring all of that to the forefront again where the uniform is going to convey certain things automatically that may or may not be true just like we don't want people to be judged by the color of their skin and certain actions to happen just because of the color of their skin.

Cheri Maples: We don't want the uniform to, you know, we don't want everybody who's in a uniform to be judged. But, you know, one of the things that we have to remember is of course, police officers are the ones that have access to legal violence. It's not citizens. And that has to be taken very seriously.

Krista Tippett: I just want to know if there's any anything else you'd want to name that we haven't talked about that you'd like to put out there about all this.

Cheri Maples: Well one thing I think is when you're doing this work, you're not going to be perfect. And mistakes and regrets are part of the building blocks of compassion. And, you know, my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, says that just as a tree should be a tree, a human being should be a human being. And he gives the example of an action that is ten percent or twenty percent nonviolent is better than an action that is ten percent nonviolent. And maybe over time, it can become eighty percent nonviolent. But if we expect ourselves to be perfect in these situations, that's just another form of violence. So again, I think we have to be gentle with ourselves and we really have to take the time to ask ourselves what pathways. What are we cultivating with our thoughts and our actions? What are the ripple effects of those thoughts and actions? Because that's all we really have to stand on. Thay calls these things our life signatures that these are our life signatures. Our thoughts, actions, and words. And so it behooves us to think about them carefully. And we don't always do that. My habit energy is very strong too and I get very self-righteous in situations where I shouldn't. And the important thing is to recognize it and to get back on course.

Krista Tippett: And I hear you speaking I mean the "us" is police officers and leaders of that profession, and demonstrators, and Grand Jury members, right? And voters and politicians and all of us who are involved from whatever direction in this dynamic.

Cheri Maples: It is. It includes all of us. There's no them. It's all us.

Krista Tippett: That's great. And I think I would like, before we go as you know Thay is very ill. I haven't heard recently, do you know how he's doing? Has he stabilized, or?

Cheri Maples: Yes. The last the last word that was put out over the Plum Village website is that he has stabilized, that his eyes are open most of the time, and that he can move his hands somewhat now, so hopefully the hemorrhage is shrinking.

Krista Tippett: OK. Well we, you know, we went back into that show and kind of brought it up to date and I think actually made it even that much sharper. And it's amazing to me how — I mean it's ten years old, right? But every time we put that on the air there's such a huge response. And also a lot of people who discover his teachings for the first time. And I did just think while I've got you on the — and so we you know we so we want to have it ready and we will put it on the air again, but I just wondered since I have you if there's anything you'd want to say about him. And, you know, ten years on you've had a lot of and you've been ordained in the meantime. I don't know. Anything you might want to add as people are focused on him right now since he's become ill.

Cheri Maples: People all over the world are focused on him and doing ceremonies, and offering metta, lovingkindness prayers, and just sending their energy in such a powerful way. He's had such an impact. I don't know of anybody that has made mindfulness more accessible than Thay. And to people worldwide, which is really amazing. And I also don't know of anybody that's had the same understanding of how important it is to build community, whether it's your community of practice, which are called sanghas in our tradition, and to be socially engaged. I don't think there's been anybody stronger on socially engaged Buddhism than Thay throughout his life. And he's just been such an amazing influence. And there are so many people all over the world, including myself, who love him and are very devoted to bringing his teachings to others.

Krista Tippett: Would you say that the path that you took professionally was informed by your kind of deepening engagement with that tradition? With Thay's teachings? Would you say a little bit about that about where you went from that police officer I met ten years ago who had just started to really claim these teachings that they could be for you too.

Cheri Maples: I think I got a lot softer and gentler. I could still have command presence when it was called for. But I think the teachings and the mindfulness trainings that Thay transmits. As I grew to understand them on a deeper and deeper level, they really affected not only my career as a police officer but my time at the Department of Corrections as the head of Probation and Parole, and my time as an Assistant Attorney General, who had the opportunity to begin some very creative public safety projects for the Department of Justice here. But I think it didn't influence my choice of career. I chose being a police officer long before. Well, seven years before I had any exposure to to Thay but it's certainly changed the way I went about being a police officer. Just in terms of the fourth mindfulness training, I can think of so many little examples of — he tells us to use right speech and that part of right speech isn't gossiping. And in police departments it's really ironic because supposedly women are the ones that sit around and gossip but I've never seen more gossip than in this male dominated profession. And it's a little scary because it's like being back in high school except everybody has a gun.

Krista Tippett: OK. Yeah. That's scary. That's really scary.

Cheri Maples: Everybody has a gun. But one of the things that I did in terms of thinking about right speech is, it's so often not the work itself but the politics of being judged by each other that is really, really difficult in these organizations. So, when I was captain of this team I just came to the team and I said 'what if we made, what if we set a guideline for ourselves that if we have a complaint or criticism we'll take it directly to the person who it's about or somebody who can do something about it? But we're not going to do this unless we're all willing to enforce it and point it out when it's happening.' And they agreed immediately... ...You mean to do that instead of gossiping about it? Exactly. Instead of going into somebody's office, shutting the door, and talking about. And it was one of the most incredible team experiences I've ever had. Just that one little thing of OK how can I bring the fourth mindfulness training about right speech into my work? How can I create a community on this team and in this department and in this city where I live? How can, you know, that's one of the things the Thay inspired is creating community wherever you are.

Krista Tippett: If you think about Thay and his influence on your life is there maybe a story or a memory that comes to mind?

Krista Tippett: Maybe from these last ten years?

Cheri Maples: Well, I haven't had a lot of contact with Thay in the last ten years, except at retreats. I haven't had one-on-one contact with him. But, you know, how powerful things can be comes to mind. When I was at Plum Village, Thay, I will never forget, we all had to write Thay a story or a page about why we wanted to be ordained into the order of inner being, which I was ordained as a dharma teacher in 2008. Ordained into the order of being, inner being in 2002. And one of the things that happened is that I had put this thing in just in the bell for him to read saying, you know, going into all the ways that I felt like both a victim and an oppressor as a police officer. And the next day he gave a dharma talk on how love has many faces. And I just sat in the back and bawled and bawled my head off. It was just and he said we have a police officer here among us. And it was really very incredible for me but then at that same retreat, I said to somebody who I was chopping vegetables with, I said you know 'I have this really weird vision of police officers holding hands and creating peaceful steps on the earth together.' And I started laughing and she said 'Cheri, you can make that happen. You can make that happen.' And she was talking to me about it. And it was the question and answer session that Thay did at Plum Village where I got up and asked him if he'd do a retreat for police officers. And I don't even remember this woman's name. But the one question, the one thing she said, and then, after that 2002 retreat, there were sixteen officers from my own department that held hands and did walking meditation together. Right. You know there is one thing that I didn't bring up that maybe I should and that's that when Thay ordained me, one of the things you do is you exchange what's called practice gathas, which are practice poems, and I wrote Thay a police officer gatha, or a police officer practice poem. And if you want, I could give you the version of it.

Krista Tippett: Do you have it?

Cheri Maples: I do.

Krista Tippett: Oh, yeah, we'd love that.

Cheri Maples: Breathing in, I know that mindfulness is the path to peace. Breathing out, I know that peace is the path to mindfulness. Breathing in, I know that peace is the path to justice. Breathing out, I know that justice is the path to peace. Breathing in, I know my duty is to provide safety and protection to all beings. Breathing out, I am humbled and honored by my duty as a peace officer. Breathing in, I to choose mindfulness as my armor and compassion as my weapon. Breathing out, I aspire to bring love and understanding to all I serve. So that was my gatha. My police officer gatha to Thay. To thank him for everything that he did for me.

Krista Tippett: You know when you talk about the training, new kinds of training, I mean this whole idea of breath, you know, breathing in and breathing out is part of — Buddhist tradition has been teaching it for thousands and thousands of years, but it's also been discovered by medicine and I mean, is that a kind of — does even that kind of exercise — can that kind of exercise be a transformative even and kind of part of you know a little a little thing to do in the in the direction of the kinds of change we've been talking about?

Cheri Maples: Oh, absolutely. I mean what do we always say whenever there's a crisis: breathe. Just breathe in and breathe out. Come back to yourself. Or even when we want to fully enjoy something. Breathe in and breathe out, which is why I started each part of this with breathing in and breathing out because it's so significant.

Krista Tippett: There's some place where you are talking about —  I don't know if you were speaking — that you've actually done this or if it was symbolic like, you know, that it's transformative to ask a police officer to take off their bullet proof vest and breathe better.

Cheri Maples: Well that happened at one of the first mindfulness training sessions I did. I did a training for the entire department on the effects of our jobs on us over time and it was very, very well received and then we did several voluntary trainings on tools that could help mitigate those effects. And one of those trainings was an introduction to mindfulness. So, the first one I did, the first thing police officers come in all ready to go to work, I said, you know, 'the first thing we're going to do is take off our bulletproof vests, so that we can breathe better. And so it was a very interesting experience watching everybody in the room take off their shirts and their bulletproof vests, and stripping down to what was underneath. So, you know, you think about just how you dress to do this job. You're putting on armor. Yeah. You know, there's so many levels of putting on armor. On your heart. On your physical body. It really is quite symbolic

Krista Tippett: Yeah. It's getting you into that fight or flight, fight getting you into that fight mode. Yes. Well Cheri, thank you so much. It's wonderful to talk to you again. It's been really — it was very important when I talked to you ten years ago and it's been amazing to watch you continue in your career and as a teacher. So thank you again for talking to me again.

Cheri Maples: Thank you for having me. I don't think anything that I've said or done has probably had more impact, or I hear more about than that first interview you did with me.

Krista Tippett: Oh. That's great.

Cheri Maples: So, I appreciate that.

Krista Tippett: Well, it's out there in the world. We'll keep putting it out there. So thank you, yeah.

Cheri Maples: Alright. OK. Bye bye.

Krista Tippett: Take care.

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is a Vietnamese Zen monk, poet, and peacemaker. He co-founded the An Quang Buddhist Institute, the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Vietnam, and Plum Village, a Buddhist training monastery in France. He is the author of many books, including Being Peace, The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation, The Art of Communicating, Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962–1966, and The Long Road Turns to Joy — A Guide to Walking Meditation.
(photo by Paul Davis)

served in the criminal justice system for 25 years, including as an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and as a police officer with the City of Madison Police Department. She is a licensed attorney, a clinical social worker, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice in Madison, Wisconsin. She was ordained as a dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh in 2008.

is co-director of the Lotus Institute in Encinitas, California and an ordained Baptist minister. He also owned a management consultant firm for Fortune 500 companies. He co-authored a book with his wife, Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships.