KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In recent years, police departments across the country have come under closer scrutiny as use of force cases have made headlines.
While those stories are visible, sometimes the efforts police are taking behind the scenes to make changes are not.
That's one of the reasons the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department is eager to highlight a unique partnership with Kansas City University.
The partnership is focused on helping officers stay calm when adrenaline floods their bodies, speeding up the heart rate and triggering a fight or flight response.
It's a feeling KCPD Sgt. Christopher Toigo says he knows all too well.
"Back in 2018, I was training a new sergeant. It was his first evening, and a 23-year-old man pulled alongside us and fired four times at our patrol vehicle at Blue Parkway in Kensington," Toigo recalled.
Neither was hit. And rather than panicking, the two stayed calm, following their suspect until they were able to take him into custody.
Toigo credits breathing, in part, for their ability to focus properly.
The technique is one being reinforced by Sgt. Ward Smith at the Kansas City Regional Police Academy's shooting range.
"We believe if you breathe and you make sure that that fight or flight response in your brain is not turned on, that you perform better," Smith said.
However, as the supervisor in charge of firearms training, Smith notes such breathing is more intensive than the type most people do intuitively.
Instead, it's a specific technique referred to as diaphragmatic breathing.
"Kind of exhale all the air out of you, and then ... you breathe in until the point where it begins to become uncomfortable," Smith said. "And I want you to concentrate on your stomach. If your stomach kind of balloons out, don’t worry about it, that means you’re doing it right."
To prove its effectiveness, KCPD has partnered with the clinical psychology department at Kansas City University to study its effects.
Participants have been divided into two groups — one that practices breathing techniques and one that doesn't.
After undergoing shooting exercises at the range, doctoral students study the groups' results.
"Our data has not been peer-reviewed yet, so I want to make sure that’s clear. But, so far, we have seen that the breathing group is shooting more accurately than the nonbreathing group, which, just in the original study, we wanted to see," explained Allison Sproles, a PsyD student at KCU.
In fact, the preliminary data shows for every 10 officers in the control group who failed their shooting test, only one failed in the breathing group.
The KCU research team says the success has to do with the difference between more shallow chest breathing versus taking deeper breaths using the diaphragm.
"So we start chest breathing in high-stress situations. That’s when we start to get tunnel vision, our blood pressure increases and that’s when we can make bad decisions — we aren’t rationally thinking," said researcher and PsyD student Taylor Stuteville. "So, when we are breathing through our diaphragm, it is a deeper, slower breath, and we tend to think more rationally."
Det. Christina Ludwig says she's noticed a difference. By around her third breath, she notes she can feel her body relax, zeroing in to "concentrate on what I was going to focus on, my target."
Experiencing the effects of the exercises, she's confident the skills will translate to success in the real world.
"I think it also plays out in use of force scenarios to when we do the combat breathing, when we take it seriously, we are less likely to use force on someone that may be in distress — it allows us an opportunity to de-escalate the situation," Toigo said.
Ultimately, that is the exact result KCPD and KCU are hoping to achieve.
"Our mission for Kansas City University is to improve the well-being of the communities that we serve, and our police are part of our community. And so, being able to enhance their training and maybe create a safer environment for them and for those in the community was really important to us," shared KCU clinical psychology professor Sarah Getch, PhD.
KCU hopes to publish the results in a medical journal sometime in the spring, optimistic other police departments throughout the country will take notice.