Wellesley Police Chief Jack Pilecki and Lunenburg Police Chief Thomas Gammel

After a chance conversation between a police chief and a community member, several police departments across the state are participating in a new empathy training program adapted from a program for medical professionals.

Wellesley Police Chief Jack Pilecki mentioned to a local artist and volunteer last summer that he was interested in finding a training program for his officers that “not only makes the officer a better officer, but a better person, too.” The volunteer suggested that he reach out to a friend, Dr. Helen Riess, who had recently written a book on empathy for doctors.

“I called her, we talked for a long time, and I told her what I was trying to do,” Pilecki said. “Anything that can help our officers de-escalate situations or better understand more about where the citizens are coming from. She said she would love to put a training together.”

The new training is taught by Riess, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and founder and CEO of Empathics Inc. Since its launch with the Wellesley police department, Sudbury and Lunenburg have also taken part.

“Departments who participate are getting out ahead of the curve and being proactive about dealing with their community,” Pilecki said. “It is very valuable training, from de-escalation to simple community engagement.”

Lunenburg Police Chief Thomas Gammel learned about the training from an email that Pilecki sent to police chiefs across the state and thought it would be a good tool for his officers.

“With police reform and what we are seeing across the country, it’s another tool to add to an officer’s toolbox to deal with interactions on a daily basis — a de-escalation tactic or emotional interaction — they may not have experience in to help them,” Gammel said.

Riess said the multi-day training is a blend of presentations about the neuroscience of emotion and empathy and emotional intelligence, and experiential exercises. Participants also spend time learning about self-empathy and accessing self-care resources to help manage the stress of the job.

“We help them identify the traits of an ideal leader and we emphasize how police officers are guardians of their community,” Riess said. “We make analogies between the roles in these two professions [public safety and health care] to help them appreciate that in high-stakes conversations, the ability to accurately recognize and manage emotions is critical.”

With the challenges facing law enforcement, Gammel said, “It’s a valuable tool, and you learn how to deal with all your relationships, not just those on the job.”

Pilecki recalled an interaction — caught on the cruiser dash cam — that one of his training officers had during a traffic stop, shortly after the department had completed the training program. The driver, who was Black and transgender, was upset and accused the officer of being racist and homophobic. Instead of reacting immediately, the officer, according to Pilecki, calmly spoke with the driver for 30 minutes, and after the interaction the driver called the station and left a message complimenting the officer and said, ‘This officer is the perfect officer to train new guys.’”

“I’d like to think the officer would have handled it the same way without the empathy training, but either way it’s great to hear,” Pilecki said.

The training is now gaining notice across the country, thanks to an article written by Pilecki and Riess for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Last fall, Wellesley brought in all officers and dispatchers for the training, and Lunenburg, which conducted the training last month, included the town manager and assistant town manager. The multi-day training costs $15,000.

“I’ve attended a lot of trainings, and everybody in these classes thought it was fantastic,” Pilecki said. “It was cathartic. The officers told stories. We had discussions. It turned out really well. The officers were thrilled with it.”

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