A Buddhist and a Cop?

Dexter Cohen Bohn shares how NYPD Detective Jeff Thompson incorporates his Buddhist practice into role as a police officer.

Dexter Cohen Bohn
21 February 2023
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Jeff Thompson.

It was a chilly October night in 2007 when His Holiness the Dalai Lama took the stage at Radio City Music Hall in the heart of Manhattan. Political tensions were high in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and narrow backstage hallways were crammed with security, attendants, and celebrity Buddhists.

Beaming inside, as he always did when fortunate enough to be on His Holiness’s private detail, Detective Jeff Thompson, PhD, let Richard Gere squeeze past followed by Nicholas Vreeland, Director of The Tibet Center in NYC. Recognizing Jeff, Vreeland stopped Gere for a moment.

“Hey, this is that Buddhist cop I was telling you about,” he said.

With one eyebrow raised Gere asked: “How can you be a Buddhist and also be a cop?”

To which a smiling Jeff responded: “Well, practicing one makes one be better at the other,” receiving Gere’s understanding nod before the group moved on.

Being a Buddhist and a Cop

Recalling this memorable encounter to Buddhist Justice Reporter, Thompson expanded on his integrated view:

“If I list the following characteristics: curiosity, resilience, empathy, self-efficacy, humility and self-compassion, am I describing Buddhism or policing? The answer is yes!”

Just as Buddhists apply these skillful means to working with difficult psychological, emotional and physical states, in the context of law enforcement, Thompson highlights that the same characteristics offer effective tools for practicing nonviolent communication. Ultimately, says Thompson, being a police officer means that one is often in the position of needing to change an individual’s behavior in order to comply with the law. Whether that’s to prevent harm to oneself or others, he says that intentionally returning to these qualities when engaged in police work offers the most strategic approach to achieving peaceful and positive outcomes.

Nobility of Policing

This synthesis of practice and professionalism represents what Thompson has come to call the “Nobility of Policing,” a heartfelt commitment to treating every person he meets with “dignity, respect, and most importantly compassion.” Grounded in a deep sense of gratitude for the service that his work offers to the community, Thompson has played an important role in nurturing the growth of this perspective on the institutional level within the NYPD and amongst international law enforcement agencies.

Atypical Cop

In July 2022, Thompson retired from a twenty-year career in the NYPD having served as the department’s first Mental Health and Wellness Coordinator. There, he conducted research and outreach on the department’s suicide prevention and postvention efforts, developed the NYPD’s first peer support training and travelled extensively implementing evidence-based practices for building resilience. Recalling these achievements Thompson was quick to note that his path in policing “started off like a typical cop.”

Fresh out of the academy he was assigned to Operation Impact, a challenging program designed to flood high crime areas with rookie officers. From there, he worked on patrol and in specialized units before holding positions in the community affairs bureau, training as a hostage negotiator and joining the department’s public relations office.

Over the course of his years working in different roles across the department, Thompson perceived a troubling imbalance in the welfare of his colleagues:

“In the majority of situations, the cops do a really good job of protecting the public, but a poor job of protecting themselves and each other. If our job is to protect and keep other people safe, that’s got to include us as well because let’s not forget, the police are made up of human beings. We’re human beings first serving in the role of police,” says Thompson.

This insight sheds light on the invisible suffering which many officers face daily stemming from the reality that police work can be physically dangerous, emotionally draining, and highly unpredictable.

Buddhist Influences

Seeking means of addressing these factors, the focus of Thompson’s work shifted more internally toward designing programs and resources that could support the wellbeing of his peers. In this direction Thompson drew significant inspiration and guidance from his Buddhist practice initiated through the dharma door of Barnes and Noble where he first discovered the books of His Holiness, Thich Nhat Hanh and Venerable Yifa of Taiwan.

An intense curiosity motivated him through nearly every offering on the shelves, leaving Thompson with a profound appreciation of interconnectedness and the values of engaged Buddhism. This translated into an abiding sense of humility in his role as a police officer, knowing that to carry a gun one is expressly responsible for practicing deep reverence of all life.

Toward the middle of his career, Thompson had the opportunity to study the principles of Humanistic Buddhism directly with Venerable Yifa, an ordained nun in the Fo Guang Shan order. This experience helped him identify the crux of his work as simply the reminder “to always humanize the people we are interacting with, both on the one-to-one scale and all the way up to the macro level.”

Black Lives Matter

Practicing this affirmation, Thompson grappled with many layers of difficulty during the intense summer 2020 period of the Black Lives Matter protests. Like many of us, he was “disgusted” by what he saw on TV and took pride in his duty to protect the public’s right to protest as enormous crowds marched through New York.

While newscasts reported on these peaceful demonstrations, Thompson says he witnessed a raging sea of violent language and hate that seemed to be directed toward every human being with a badge on their chest. These interactions with the public were disheartening for Thompson, especially when members of the Buddhist community decided to chime in offering unsolicited advice on how to do his job, he says.

Thompson reflected that treating the police in this way reinforces an “us vs them” mentality, retracing a view of the thin blue line that further divides us from social harmony. Making the police part of the conversation about reform is a vital step towards actualizing institutional change and assures that the process of transformation is grounded in the common interest of building a fully respectful and participatory society, Thompson believes.

M.E.T.T.A. in Action

Regardless of the uniform he is wearing, Thompson is dedicated to embodying the dharmic principles of justice and supporting their development in others, especially those in positions of authority. While studying for this PhD in Mediation and Nonverbal Communication, Thompson developed the M.E.T.T.A. acronym as a mnemonic device to support the memory of officers in training. Movement; Environment; Touch; Tone; and Appearance comprise fundamental reminders for right communication which have now been successfully integrated into core police academy curriculums. Though many are unaware of the acronym’s invitation to loving kindness, Thompson was pleased to report that, in contrast to the start of his career, such language is now increasingly used with warmth and understanding inside the policing institution.

As the path to cultivating a harmonious relationship between the police and general public continues to unfold, it’s the work of people like Jeff Thompson that give cause for hope. In no uncertain terms Thompson reminds us; “I didn’t infiltrate policing, I am policing, and I know there are many more just like me out there serving in your local communities.” Indeed, as Buddhist practitioners it is incumbent upon us to see through our judgments, however deeply they may be conditioned, so that the much-needed seeds of liberation may sprout through the muddy waters of our time.

This article was created in collaboration with Buddhist Justice Reporter (BJR), founded by BIPOC Buddhist practitioners in response to the police torture and murder of George Floyd. BJR publishes articles on issues related to environmental, racial, and social justice and its intersections, from an anti-racist Buddhist lens.

Dexter Cohen Bohn

Dexter Cohen Bohn

Dexter Cohen Bohn is a British/American social activist and Communications Coordinator at the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) based in Bangkok, Thailand.