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Cheri Maples gives new meaning to the words “peace officer.”
There’s a story Cheri Maples tells about the first time she saw her Buddhist practice in action. The year was 1991, and Maples, then a patrol cop on the Madison, Wisconsin, police force, was responding to a domesticviolence call. A divorced dad was holding his young daughter hostage, refusing to hand her over to his ex-wife after a weekend visit. When Maples interceded, he threatened her. Ordinarily, she would have slapped handcuffs on the guy and hauled him off to jail. But she had just sat her first retreat with the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, and the experience “had broken open my heart,” Maples says. She persuaded the father to release his daughter and then, instead of arresting him, spoke to him from her heart. Within minutes, he was in tears.
“Here I am, 5'3"tall, with a gun belt strapped to my waist, and this 6'3" man is bawling like a baby in my arms,” Maples recalls. “I violated every tenet of my tactical training in that scenario.” But a few days later, when she ran into the man in a local shop, he swept her up in a bear hug and exclaimed, “Thank you for saving my life!”
Nowadays, finding a compassionate resolution to conflict is business as usual for Maples, a fifty-six-year-old social-justice advocate, consultant, and trainer for criminal-justice professionals— and, since January 2008, dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. Since that pivotal night when her approach to policing shifted, Maples has introduced meditation and mindfulness to police officers, judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys, correctional and parole officers, social workers, and prison officials. “I’ve worked hard to bring the spirit of mindfulness training to my work,” she says, “including the belief that you can never end violence with violence and that punishment isn’t the right philosophy to build a criminal-justice system around.”
If “Buddhist cop” sounds like an oxymoron, Maples’s back story soon makes sense of the dichotomy. Before even considering police work, she earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin, worked as a community organizer and women’s advocate—she was the first director of the Wisconsin Coalition against Domestic Violence—and completed all but the last semester of coursework toward a Ph.D. in social work.
Maples joined the police force at age thirty-one for the most mundane of reasons: she was disenchanted with academia and tired of struggling to get by on a part-time teaching assistant’s salary. She and her partner at the time were raising the first of their two sons. An acquaintance who had gone from social work school to the force told Maples, “If you want to make money, work in a male-dominated profession. We’re basically social workers with guns.”
As it happens, it was a propitious time to become a cop. Madison’s police chief, who later became a minister, was, according to Maples, a very progressive guy. “He put billboards up around Madison saying things like ‘Join the alternative Peace Corps, the Madison Police Department.’” Over the next twenty years, she rose steadily through the ranks to captain in charge of recruiting and training—one of the top two posts in the department. (Along the way, she earned a law degree while working the night shift.) In 2005, when she was passed over for police chief, Maples left the force and became the head of probation and patrol for the state of Wisconsin, then served in the state attorney general’s office until 2008.