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Narrow escape from murder plot inspired ex-police chief’s interest in meditation

Les Sylven, who served as Central Saanich chief, earned his PhD from UVic based on a study of meditation that began soon after he was targeted in a murder-suicide plot as a first-year cop
Former police chief Les Sylven, who just earned his PhD in leadership studies from the University of ­Victoria, in his cap and gown before the convocation ceremonies at the university’s Farquhar Auditorium on Monday. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Les Sylven never planned to be a cop, but when he ended up as an RCMP rookie, he knew exactly what kind of officer he wanted to be.

“I wanted to be the kind of police officer who showed up and made things better.”

When Sylven was growing up in Calgary, police would often be called to help with his older brother, whose schizophrenia would at times present as violence — “some of the police would show up and make things better. Some of them would make it worse.”

Later, when he was working as a correctional officer in a remand centre for those awaiting trial to support himself while studying psychology at the University of Calgary, Sylven would have to see his brother now and then being held in cells for reasons connected to his mental health.

“Throughout my career, I felt like everyone I came in contact with could be my brother or sister — not a piece of crap or trash — but my brother,” said Sylven.

One night in 1988, in his first year on the job, his approach almost got him killed.

Sylven, who had been posted to Squamish, was asked to check on a depressed, friendly older man living in a trailer — a man who told police he had thought about hurting himself.

Sylven treated the man as if he was a family member. “I was a naive new cop in my early 20s,” said the former Central Saanich police chief.

After a half hour of listening intently to the man speak about his feelings of failure and isolation, Sylven had convinced him to voluntarily get into his police cruiser and was about to leave for the hospital when the man made a request.

He asked Sylven to go back inside and collect his loaded handgun from under his pillow.

At that point, Sylven realized the man had planned to shoot him inside his house, “trusting that I would quickly shoot back and kill him.”

The incident was a turning point for Sylven, triggering a three-decade-long journey to find ways to effectively cope with a profession that “operates in the brightest and darkest places of the human experience.”

This past week, that journey reached another milestone as Sylven was awarded a PhD in leadership studies from the University of Victoria for his research on how meditation and mindfulness influence the leadership practices of Canadian police leaders.

As the 58-year-old father of two adult children was handed his degree at Monday’s convocation ceremony, the emcee noted that Sylven’s research is being “considered by police organizations across Canada.”

“He learned that in addition to improving police-officer well being, regular mindfulness practice could be a catalyst for reform,” the emcee said.

Searching for a healthy coping strategy after that night in 1988, Sylven landed on transcendental meditation, and ending up adopting a lifetime practice of meditation.

As part of his dissertation, Sylven published three research papers, the first giving a snapshot of meditation practices of practising officers from across Canada and a final paper on bridges and barriers to implementing meditation programs in police forces.

In between was a paper entitled “Mindful police leadership: Opening essential new pathways to 21st-century police leadership and culture.”

At its most basic, transcendental meditation involves focusing attention on the silent repetition of a sound or mantra. For Sylven’s research, mindfulness is generally defined as a state of consciousness characterized by greater awareness of present experiences and reality.

The practice would improve his job performance, professional and personal relationships, leadership style, and physical and mental health throughout more than 30 years as an RCMP officer, Victoria police inspector and Central Saanich chief, he said.

Whether he was interviewing a sexual-assault suspect, responding to a domestic-violence call, squeezing a rifle’s trigger as a sniper, stopping his heart rate from “exploding” as an undercover cop dealing with volatile organized-crime members, or leading other officers during a crisis, Sylven knew how to clear his mind, steady his body and focus on the task at hand.

For his survey, Sylven sent out requests to 605 commissioned officers across Canada in a bulk email.

Thirteen agreed to participate in his study, and 11 met the inclusion criteria of practising meditation regularly — at least three times per week for at least three months.

Respondents noted the benefits of meditation included enhanced calmness and self-control; better clarity and decision making; improved focus and conflict-resolution; greater compassion and empathy; and a reduction in stress.

The officers also reported better personal relationships because of meditation, he said.

While the impact of meditation is well-documented in other workplace contexts, “until this study, little was known about how these mental practices might benefit police leaders,” said Sylven, who wants Canadian police leaders to consider incorporating meditation as both a preventive and recovery health-care regime for all officers.

Sylven said he is presenting his research to various police leaders and organizations and contributing to a police leadership textbook to be published in November.

He next plans to study spirituality as a coping mechanism — how faith gets us through crisis and the “sense making” of random events.

Police encounter many tragic and inexplicable events — such as the young family out for a leisurely drive on a sunny weekend hit and killed by a bus, or the drunk driver who rolls a vehicle full of intoxicated passengers down a cliff and they all walk away unscathed.

“Policing is one of those professions that puts you in a state of often asking how the universe works,” said Sylven, who is himself still questioning why his life was spared that night in 1988 in Squamish.

Sylven said he’s itching to keep making inquiries and finding tools to better prepare police officers.

“I think I’m hooked,” he said. “This research has just led me to more questions and I’ve got a feeling I’ll be turning over rocks for the rest of my life.”

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