On the attendance board at the police station to which is assigned Lieutenant Joe Richardson, his colleagues often write next to his name and instead of “In” or “Out”, “At Temple”, and this even when he is on duty. In fact Richardson, a Buddhist, lives his religious beliefs at all moments of the day and wherever he is. They have become an integral part of him and of who he is; they dictate his thoughts, actions and reactions; and have transformed him and his daily life into the real temple of his faith.
” Searching for a religious identity, I became attracted to Buddhism because of its emphasis on compassion,” says Richardson, “also for its Boddhisattva ideal to always work for the benefit and enlightenment of all human beings.” Not keen, however, on the idea of “reincarnation”, he was reassured by a statement from the Dalai Lama that one does not have to espouse all Buddhist beliefs in order to become a Buddhist.
Born in Belleville, a small village of Northern Ohio, Richardson was not raised religious but, nevertheless, with strong moral values. His parents expected him to always be respectful and well behaved. Growing up he was not exposed to diversity, but rather to a very homogenous white community with little to no encounters with minorities such as Blacks, Latinos, or gays. Like his father he was very conservative, with extreme right wing views, and deeply believed that anyone or any group who had a problem was entirely responsible for solving it. In 1985 and at the age of 18 he joined Miami University to study political sciences and was an active member of its college of Republicans. Three years later, he dropped out of school, got married and joined the police.
“Becoming a cop appealed very much to me,” he says. “I was big and imposing, and always protected my weak friends from the bulliers. I felt I had the ability to help others.”
Richardson came to policehood with altruistic ideas and no prejudices. He succumbed, however, quickly to its culture of separation, the work tending to impose a perspective of “Us” versus “Them”, the good guys against the bad ones, police versus civilians…
“Cops learn to see themselves as guardians, like sheepdogs, and view criminals as wolves,” Richardson states. “That also reinforces the us-versus-them mentality.”
This mentality accompanied Richardson all the way until 1999 when he was promoted supervisor and was assigned to work with “Citizens on Patrol” in East Price Hill. His initial skeptical approach to the group changed quickly when he encountered instead wonderful individuals who were friendly, competent, responsible, police-supporting and who wanted to help take care of their own problems and improve their neighborhood.
“They all became my friends and they showed me that there were things outside the police department which were as good as within, in order to address neighborhood issues,” he says.
Richardson’s new perspective was also quickly reinforced by the April 2001 racial riots in Cincinnati which followed the killing of unarmed African American Timothy Thomas by a white policeman. These riots prompted a self-reflection within the police organization as a whole and an examination of police actions at all levels.
“It was a wake-up call,” says Richardson. “I was almost simultaneously inside the department looking out and outside looking in. It made me realize that policing was something we had traditionally done “TO” the community instead of “WITH” the community and that it needed to change. And I wanted to be a part of that change.”
Serving as a liaison to community councils and neighborhood groups, Richardson would attend their meetings, talk to them regarding security and police issues, and listen to their complaints. He would always strive to be open, receptive and honest, and bring back the awareness he acquired from his interactions to his superiors and other police officers.
“It ceased to be only about zero tolerance and jailing the offender, the aprroach prevalent before,” he says. “Trying to understand the issue, seeing it from different viewpoints, and collaborating to finding a solution, became instead the focus.”
This new vision coincided in Richardson with his discovery of Buddhism which also stresses in its teachings that there is no Us vs Them, that in fact there is no Them but just all Us, and that, as a result, it becomes difficult to hate someone who is part of you. Richardson progressively learned more and more about Buddhism. He frequented and attended classes at the local Buddhist temples, first the Therevadan monastery in Forest Park, then the Tibetan one in Colerain where he discovered a very strong sense of “sangha”, community. In 2011 he took his refuge vows as a declared Buddhist.
“To me Buddhism is how to live life,” he says. “I don’t do it for the promise of heaven or eternal life. I do it to make me a better me now and in the future.”
In fact, every morning Richardson meditates and prays with the explicit purpose to be reminded to be a good Buddhist throughout his day.
In 2014, wanting to learn more about religions, he decided to pursue his education and joined the University of Cincinnati focusing on religious studies. He graduated last month with a Bachelor’s degree and hopes to pursue a Master’s degree in the near future.
At the police department, Richardson is now responsible for enlarging the Police Academy into a regional enterprise. It is where civilians are trained to become police officers, and where policemen get their continuous professional training as required by the State. Richardson would like to expand the program, and, in addition to social justice, bring more diversity training to it, also introduce mindfulness and equanimity as topics of dicussion. He likes to quote Rodney Mutterspaw, the chief of Middletown police, who, for instance, added social awareness and emotional intelligence to his officers’ training.
At work and with his colleagues, Richardson tries to live by example, with honesty, and according to his Buddhist faith.
“When needed, I do not hesitate to be the hand who stops somebody to only go so far and no further, or to say, “that’s wrong”, “that’s mean”, or “that’s bigoted”. I’ve had to learn that a lot more good comes from consistently being the person willing to say, “this is not welcome here”,” he states.
Richardson would like to learn more about the BlackLivesMatter movement and establish liaison with its local leaders. He thinks that communication and respect are keys for dealing with any community.
“At the start I was a white male protestant policeman part of the majority. When I started getting rid of labels, I saw the diversity and embraced it. Others stopped being my enemy; they became part of me, me and me vs me and them.”
Richardson aims at living his life truthfully, honestly, with mindfulness and compassion. He aims also at being a Boddhisattva, at helping bring everyone else along to a better place.
What Is BUDDHISM Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 BC), the Buddah, a rich prince who led a life of an ascetic mendicant, in Nepal, teaches people how to end their suffering by cutting out greed, hatred and ignorance. For Buddhism, doing bad things brings bad consequences, and good things, good ones; and good and bad do not cancel out. This cause-and-effect chain is reflected in the endless cycles of life, death and rebirth (reincarnation) in which Buddhism believes. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to reach the state of enlightenment (Nirvana) and liberate oneself from endless reincarnation and suffering. Buddhists do not believe that Buddha is a god, but rather a human being who has woken up and sees the true way the world works; and that this knowledge represents the final extinction of desire. Buddhists take refuge in the three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma (the way to live life as taught by the Buddha), and the Sangha (the congregation of monks and other Buddhists). They are encouraged to follow five precepts, or rules: not to hurt a living person or animal; not to take something that is not given; not to engage in sexual misconduct; not to lie or say hurtful things; not to take intoxicants (like alcohol or drugs) which cause heedlessness. Some see Buddhism as a religion, others as a philosophy, and others as a way of finding reality.