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New Program Helps Capitol Police Deal With Trauma From The Insurrection

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

U.S. Capitol Police are in the midst of one of the toughest periods in the agency's nearly 200-year history. The recent deadly attacks at the Capitol have threatened morale and created new levels of trauma for officers. To provide mental health support, a congressman and a psychiatrist have teamed up to create a new program. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Dr. Jim Gordon of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., says one of the first steps to addressing trauma is breathing.

JIM GORDON: Slow, deep breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth, with our bellies soft and relaxed.

GRISALES: The psychiatrist is sharing his concentrated meditation technique with Capitol Police and their families working through upheaval.

GORDON: And afterwards, I say, how many of you noticed change? And out of a dozen people, 10 people will say, yes, I noticed a change.

GRISALES: Gordon founded his center 30 years ago, working healing programs in Kosovo, Haiti and Parkland, Fla., through war zones, public disasters and after-school shootings. After the Capitol attack, Gordon asked Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan if he could help. The two met years ago, when Ryan was working on his 2012 book on mindfulness and meditation. Ryan, who oversees funding for Capitol Police, responded to Gordon's request within 10 minutes, yes.

TIM RYAN: This is something that is going to transform the men and women of the Capitol Police force and therefore transform the Capitol Police.

GRISALES: Already, Ryan and other lawmakers are considering a standalone security funding bill aimed at addressing new needs at the agency. For Gordon, his effort may be the most extensive and comprehensive for his center yet working with a law enforcement department with plans to continue the program for up to a year or more. Some members of the force and their leaders have publicly touched on the trauma in recent months.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In my nearly 19-year career in the department, this was by far the worst of the worst.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There were multiple times where I thought, I might not make it out of here alive.

YOGANANDA PITTMAN: It has been an extremely difficult and challenging year for us.

GRISALES: That was a captain, an officer and the force's acting chief. Gus Papathanassiou, head of the Capitol Police Union, says morale for the agency was low during the pandemic, and it got worse after the insurrection.

GUS PAPATHANASSIOU: A lot of the officers, you know, are pretty upset.

GRISALES: So far, dozens have participated in Gordon's focus groups that can run two and a half hours or longer, where officers take turns talking and sharing techniques. Gordon recalls one 20-year veteran who sat with arms crossed who finally spoke up.

GORDON: He nods his head, and he says, you know, I'm not somebody who shows anything. And I'm - you know, you see me here. You don't see much expression in my face. But I'm feeling everything you guys are feeling.

GRISALES: That officer said he's proud of the agency's work protecting members of Congress on January 6, but he's having trouble sleeping. He's more irritable than before and feeling the pain and anxiety from that day. Next, police will take part in workshops, expand on practices officers can use to relieve stress, from dancing to drawing. Then the program will train 40 ambassadors on the force to continue the teachings. The urgency to help was highlighted again this month, when another deadly incident broke out at the Capitol as Gordon and his team were hosting a workshop.

GORDON: As soon as they heard on the walkie-talkie shots fired, they were there.

GRISALES: A car attack killed one officer, 18-year veteran Billy Evans, and marked the agency's second line-of-duty death this year after the loss of Brian Sicknick, who died the day after the riot. Another officer, Howard Liebengood, died by suicide days later. The night of this month's incident, some officers returned to meet in groups or individually with Gordon and his team.

GORDON: It was a reminder that what we have to offer is going to be necessary on an ongoing basis.

GRISALES: With the Capitol increasingly a target, hopes are the program will reach every officer and civilian on the force and help them cope with the trauma. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.