Police and Focusing: An Interview with Achim Grube
by Jocelyn Jacks Kahn
“And the citizens and the highest-ranking police officer said, ‘No, this cannot be. We have to change.’ And then it did change.”
Achim Gruber worked in the police force in Germany for 45 years, until his retirement in 2018. His first years were spent as a “normal” police officer, and later in the state criminal investigation office. But in 1993 he had the opportunity to switch to the social services branch of the police division in Lower Saxony, where he was employed.
I believe it would be safe to say that, generally, the relationship between the police in the United States and the communities they are policing can at best be described as dysfunctional. Achim has played a significant part in changing a similarly dysfunctional relationship between police and their communities in Germany over a 10-year period, so I was quite interested in what he had to say about that, as well as in learning about how he has brought Focusing into the police departments he has worked with.
Achim began by giving some of his background:
I learned Focusing in 1993. It was a part of my education as a client-centered therapist. A one-weekend Focusing training was part of the program. And when I learned Focusing that weekend, I thought it would be a good match for police work.
At that time, I worked at the state criminal investigation office. I then had the opportunity to change to the social services department of the Lower Saxony police district. In Lower Saxony we have 21,500 police officers and the social department is responsible for conflict management. Conflict management is about reducing violence during demonstrations through communication – and also reducing violence during soccer games because many crazy people stirred up a lot of violence during those games! The other part was supervision, coaching and trauma therapy (which was a small part of my job).
At first, I used a combination of EMDR and Focusing. Later on, I learned Brainspotting from David Grand (from the United States), and I found it to be more efficient for working with the police and teaching them to use Focusing.
Although I’d heard the term, I did not know what Brainspotting was, so I asked Achim to tell me about it.
Working with the felt sense, as we do in Focusing, makes it easy to learn Brainspotting.
Researchers from the US discovered an endpoint in the visual field that is as large as a coin.
If you look at this point, you have a strong bodily reaction. So, as an example: perhaps a police officer is traumatized. First you ask him for the felt sense of it. And he may say, "On my chest, it's very heavy..." and so on. And then you ask him to be in contact with the felt sense.
Now, you have a pointer (a thin, long white stick) in your hand. You then move the point of it slowly and broadly across the person’s visual field. And as you do, they are gazing through the visual field - and at one specific point they will have a strong bodily reaction. That is the “Outer Reaction Point,” which is somewhat similar, or close enough anyway, to the felt sense.
And so you can combine Brainspotting and Focusing very well. The client looks at the Outer Reaction Point, which includes everything about the trauma, including the thoughts, and you can then switch to Focusing and work with the felt sense.
In the context of policing, I found Brainspotting to be much easier to use because it is so much simpler.
While your felt sense takes you into the Reaction Point, intensifying the feeling, we also have the Resource Point which brings a feeling of calm. If you look at the Resource point, you can calm down very easily. You have an immediate experience in your body of, "Oh! I feel calm, relaxed, more free..."
And if you (or someone you’re working with) are extremely stressed or traumatized, you can combine this with tapping on the knees - left knee, right knee, left, right, tap, tap, tap, tap… I might have a person do this as homework three to five times a day in order to calm themselves. It works very quickly.
In 1998, we were responsible for training the counselors for the police. Lower Saxony has 8 million inhabitants and is as large as Switzerland. We have large towns – for example, Hanover has 500,000 inhabitants – and there are large police districts. And the police districts already have three to five police officers and social workers who work together doing social work within the police force.
If a police officer has a problem with his family, or he was traumatized or attacked and so on, then this group is responsible to help them.
So, I taught them a mixture of the client-centered therapy approach and Focusing. Actually, some had a very strong respect for Focusing and said, "Oh, no, that goes too deep. I do not want this deep work." But others wanted to use Focusing, and they were really successful with this approach to counseling.
It strikes me that what you're describing - a social services approach being truly integrated into police work – could be a model of what we're looking for in this country.
I'm wondering whether you can say something about the history of how social services came to be so deeply integrated into the police force in Germany.
My former boss started this work in 1992, one year before I came into the social services department. At the time we were only five people who were responsible for all of the police in Lower Saxony.
We felt we needed 18 people in Lower Saxony, and so we really fought with the government to employ more social workers or police officers who we could educate with special skills like supervision, coaching or Focusing, and so on.
At last, after some years, the politicians accepted employing more social workers in the police force. It was a hot fight for years for us to open the minds of the very high-ranking police officials and also some politicians.
But it worked because the highest-ranking police officers – in Germany, we refer to them as our Police Presidents – realized that they very much needed people who could solve some of the problems that police officers had.
In Germany, we have very, very few racists serving in the police force. And those individuals who are racists belong to the fascists.
Officers who are racists will have a problem with the government and the police very early on, so we have a very low amount of corruption in the police. The government and the Police Presidents have a strong policy: they will not accept racism in the police. A lot of work has been done with this.
Likewise, as far as attitudes to homosexuality, today it's very normal in the German police for a police officer to say they are homosexual. But when I started in 1993, the first work we had to do was to open the minds of police officers to the fact that we had homosexual officers in the police force and how to handle this. It took a long time, but it has become normal. And similarly, homosexual counselors within the police have become normal.
So I'm wondering whether this is just one district that has these sorts of policies, or is this nationwide?
We have federal states and Lower Saxony is a federal state with 8 million inhabitants. Every federal state has its own police system. We were the first, besides Berlin.
Berlin was the first to introduce conflict management in the police. This was because they had a lot of demonstrations in Berlin and there was a lot of violence. We were the next state to introduce conflict management and after some years, other states deployed it within police departments as well.
We also had a European Union project with 12 nations – for example, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia has a really good conflict management system. We had an exchange with Poland.
We have a slogan in Germany: "A police should be your friend and helper.” It is not always so, but the idea is important to support the citizens of the state.
It's an interesting thing: If you want to investigate a crime, then you need the help of the community inhabitants. There is important research that says that most of the evidence that results in criminals being caught and investigated is due to citizens who witnessed the crime. But you'll only get this information if the citizens trust the police. Otherwise, they will not communicate with them. That means to do effective and successful police work, the police have to have a good relationship with the community they police.
So right now, is this how the police are throughout Germany, with the strong social service emphasis, the strong conflict management training, the strong effort to have positive ties with the community, this lack of homophobia and racism?
Yes, I think so.
And so when you were starting to work toward this in 1993, it sounds like you were one of the main people in your federal state that was bringing in this new way of working within the police.
Yes, but I was not the only one. There were other police officers in every district. When we started this work it was very hard! When I went into a classroom, after an hour I would sigh, "Ohhhhh!" (a deeply discouraged sigh) because they were not responding. It was hard to change their minds – it was hard for people to become more open-minded.
But we realized that if you want to change something within an organization, it takes at least 10 years. It takes a long time for an organization to develop. We knew that we would not be successful quickly – we knew that it would take time.
Yes, I can see that was key – to accept that it would take a long time and that you would need a lot of patience for the difficult road ahead.
And so you were saying that when you were starting this work in Lower Saxony, Berlin had already gone in this new direction and it was already pretty well developed there.
In most of our police departments in the United States – certainly in the big city police departments – they are not actually operating like this. If anything, police and citizens seem to be getting more polarized.
In your particular district, it was the dramatic uptick in police suicides that triggered this first moment of change. But more broadly, historically, what was the origin of this decisive realization that the attitude of the police had to change?
It's the same in every country – for example, we had a big problem in one district over the issue of atomic waste. There, we had very hard demonstrations. Police at that time hit demonstrators very forcefully. They came from Hamburg and were so aggressive that a lot of demonstrators were injured.
It was 1997. The police made a very ugly picture of police work. And the citizens and the highest-ranking police officer said, "No, this cannot be. We have to change." And then it did change. There was an order to change it.
This happened in the Czech Republic, in Poland, and in other countries: They also had demonstrations with a lot of violence that injured demonstrators. And after a very, very bad demonstration, there was very bad police work. So, the police in a number of countries were looking for other approaches to handle such situations in a better way with as little violence as possible.
And that's the history in a lot of federal states in Germany. In Berlin in 1996 there were big student protests against the government. The police were really aggressive; one demonstrator was shot down. At that time, very early on, they looked at how to handle demonstrations in another way, not so violent. And it is different now.
Here in the US right now, it seems we’re still at the point you’ve advanced from - using force as a first resort. There are pictures of New York Police leaping out of their vehicles to attack nonviolent protestors at recent demonstrations – really crazy!
There is such a deep divide right now in the United States – it seems unbridgeable.
Nevertheless, listening to you and hearing that 10 years prior to all the hard work you and others devoted to changing the situation, it was much the same situation in Germany as it is here today – I do feel some small sense of possibility that perhaps one day it could be different even here in the United States.
From a systems theory viewpoint, you cannot change a system from the outside. You have to change the system from inside, and that means you need strong people in the institution who are open-minded, who are well supported, and who have good standing. Then they can change the system from inside.
If you apply a lot of pressure from the outside, as a rule it has proportionately less influence. Because for people who are in this posture [places his hands in front of his body in a defensive gesture], they are not able to learn.
If you stay in resistance, you cannot learn. This is a very important sentence. Carl Rogers said it. If you are in resistance, you cannot learn; you have to be open-minded. It means you have to give up this resistance to think about human rights in another way.
It seems like so much healing needs to happen even to begin to come to some initial place of trust.
So it makes sense what you’re saying – that, really, it has to come from within the police leadership. I'm not sure how we get there. Especially with this stance of attack/counterattack between police and those seeking reform. It's hard to imagine where this starting point could happen.
You might begin by asking how police officers can become open-minded towards Focusing. It's actually the same for police as for fire brigades (which I have worked with), and for rescue teams and for nurses.
If you work a long time in a field like one of these, you develop a strong intuition for dangerous situations. If you do an investigation, you have an intuition whether people are speaking the truth or are lying – you can feel it in your body. After some years, police have really good intuition.
I only have to tell them, "It's very important to work with your intuition. We call it another name: the felt sense.” Then, it's an obvious way to open doors, to enrich their mindset. They already have their belief in intuition. I might say, for example, “Society says that intuition is not so important. More important is thinking. Of course, thinking is important – no question – but to solve, to overcome, to cope in a dangerous situation, you need to use your intuition. And with Focusing, you can learn how to talk to your felt sense in order to get the information that you need to overcome the bad situation.”
And that police officer, or that member of a fire brigade or rescue team, understands this immediately. I thought of that because with this approach it's easy to go to such professions.
They had no seminar for the police about decision-making in dangerous situations, and so I thought of creating a seminar using Prof. Hejo Feuerstein’s work with decision-making. If you have to make a decision in normal life, you normally have days, weeks, maybe even months to think about the best solution. But if you have to make a decision in a dangerous situation, you have seconds or minutes to come to a good solution.
With Focusing, you can work with the felt sense you already have for a dangerous situation. You can feel whether a solution you come up with feels good in your body or not.
We put all of these ideas together and offered a seminar to the police on the topic of decision-making in the police with Focusing. It was in Lower Saxony, and we offered this seminar a number of times. We had officers from the riot police, river police, bomb disposal police and helicopter police. They were very open-minded toward working with the felt sense, which was part of the seminar.
This is an idea worth exploring if you want to go into a police department, fire brigade, or a similar type of institution. The first step could be to offer decision-making in dangerous situations.
Yes, that's excellent, the way you brought Focusing into the police department through deeply understanding what they're dealing with and what interests them: further developing their intuition, their instinct, for what to do in dangerous situations. That's so great!
But it seems to me it could be difficult to have the Focusing really "take" with just one brief workshop. Was there ongoing training?
I’m afraid we only had regular trainings for the counselors, not for police leaders. The police leaders had only one seminar. That's not enough, but we thought it was better than nothing!
Yes, very much so. And yet, it sounds like it has had a far-reaching influence on the way they work.
Also, I can see how the simplicity and effectiveness of Brainspotting, and being able to combine it so naturally with the felt sensing of Focusing, would make it more likely that they could actually use it, with some support from the counselors. And having an understanding of what the counselors were doing would also be important.
I've also given seminars in using this combination of skills as an additional approach for therapists and other people who work with Focusing. There are just a few techniques, and you can integrate them into your Focusing work very easily.
To give you a bit more background on Brainspotting and why I find it so useful:
Stephen Porges (who developed polyvagal theory) explains that the eyes are moved by six muscles, and if you are in a dangerous situation, the muscles move the eyes very, very fast. And if you are on a mountain and gaze around you, then you calm down and notice the fantastic view. As your muscles are moving the eyes in this way, it calms you – and these are also the muscles involved in smiling and so on. They will then influence your nervous system.
I was part of a research study on Brainspotting. The treatment was three sessions with traumatized police officers after a difficult investigation. And after three to five sessions, the trauma was resolved. We followed up with them one year later and it was still resolved. That means it works very fast and long term, and within the framework of a Focusing session, this fits well.
I prefer it to EMDR because EMDR requires your eyes moving fast, like popcorn; but with Brainspotting, you only look at the point and go deep inside. If you look at that point and I ask you to get in contact with the felt sense, you will have the experience that you can go very fast and very deeply into the Focusing process.
Yes - I see how it's ideal for training the police in bringing Focusing into their own lives and even using it in their work because it is quick, straightforward, and effective. I see its benefits for doing some very deep trauma work very quickly, in the moment.
I specialize in solving blockages. I asked myself what I can do best and I realized that I can solve blockages in a very easy and effective way. It’s a good fit for Focusing professionals because so many people have emotional blockages to resolve. And resolving blockages with the combination of Focusing and Brainspotting is very easy.
It is a good fit for students as well. I work with students who have blockages that prevent them from learning more effectively and it resolves them. And of course it’s useful in everyday work as well if, say, you have a problem with your boss. With the combination of Focusing and Brainspotting, you can solve these kinds of blockages quickly.
Yes, it sounds like a powerful approach to emotional blocks.
And to return specifically to the issue of being able to change police culture and the police relationship with their communities: I'm sure that there are individuals who genuinely would like to change but who don’t know of practical tools as an alternative to, as you say, “the hard stick first and then talk.”
Of course, an important pre-condition to change is police leadership who have that moment of realizing that, "No, this cannot be. We have to change" – who realize that the current situation is destructive to the entire community, including the police.
Conflict management training is an obvious approach that is easy for police to see as being of value to themselves, while it is also of obvious value to the larger community.
And in terms of a strong social services aspect, the combination of Focusing and Brainspotting you are teaching seems a very doable practice for counselors in the department to use in order to deepen their work with the police. At the same time, it gives the police themselves a tool they can use not only to help themselves, but some of the people they encounter in their job.
I'm very impressed with how actively you've been involved in helping implement this work of changing the police culture in Germany. This has been a wonderful conversation.
There are certainly difficulties specific to the United States in changing the police culture here, such as the massive amounts of weapons both the police and citizens have, which is generally not true in Europe. Police in the US are put on the street with much less training from the get-go than their European counterparts (about five or six months versus two years). There is the inadequacy of the social support system in the US, which ends up unfairly burdening the police on the street with dealing with all of the problems that result. And so on…
Nevertheless, as I said earlier, it doesn't seem quite as hopeless to me now, knowing that an entire country has been able to experience profoundly positive change in a dysfunctional system once the will to change was mobilized. I am noticing this tiny green shoot of emotion that is starting to well up inside me as I feel this very small and very new sense of possibility. Thank you!