Curious Comedy’s team is usually going for laughs. But there’s nothing even remotely funny about the scenes they were acting out at the Hillsboro Police Department’s training facility recently.
Two officers circle around the back of a mock apartment building. Inside the upstairs unit, someone is screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s improv performer Nate May, but he sounds for all the world like someone experiencing a breakdown.
The idea for the training originated with Hillsboro Police tactics and training officer Roberto De Giulio. De Giulio says he was talking with a brain researcher about the fast decisions officers often face in the field and the need to practice them under the same kind of stress they find in the real situations.
“And he said, ‘Get some actors.’ And that started this.”
De Giulio says training can’t be effective if it doesn’t go beyond the technical aspects of police work.
“When we watch a tragic event unfold, say it’s a dashboard camera video of an officer losing their life,” De Giulio says., “I can guarantee you, in a room full of veteran cops, we’re not going, ‘Boy, he didn’t hold master grip on the gun! His stance wasn’t right!’ To what ability, when we have these kind of stressors can we effectively make decisions.”
It comes down, he says, to getting officers to a place where they can make good decisions under stress.
Stacey Hallal is the artistic director at Curious Comedy. “I was immediately interested,” she said of when she got the call from the department asking if Curious would be interested in helping out with a training.
Hallal said improv performers are really good at the kind of non-verbal signals of body language, posture, and expression, that can signal all kinds of intentions. These are skills they use every time they get onstage with other performers, and start to work out a scene.
“You communicate so much in that initial exchange,” Hallal said. “Am I going to trust you? Am I not going to trust you? Are you on my side? Are you not on my side?”
It turns out, that kind of information is exactly what police officers need to focus on when they enter a situation on patrol.
When the Hillsboro police and Curious started talking about working together, race relations were all over the news, and both sides thought they’d work on officers’ interactions with people of color. But as the conversation progressed, they decided to begin by focusing on how police handle people experiencing mental health crises.
Outside the building, another improv performer, Nate Smith, swings a sledgehammer again and again into a parked car. The exercise is patterned after a call police responded to, in which someone in a state of crisis vandalized her own car, then ducked inside a grocery store. Officers follow Smith as he dashes inside.
Smith paces frenetically, as officer Stewart Kelsey and a partner — over a tense 15 minutes — talk him into putting the hammer down.
The improv team studied case files and videos to prepare for these sessions.
Stewart Kelsey says when officers walk into a situation, the first few seconds deliver information that can completely change outcomes. He says the improv teams were pretty realistic.
“It’s the street-level language — some of it is antagonistic, some of it is foul language, some of it is derogatory toward the officer. That’s exactly what we encounter.”
Kelsey said when officers walk into a situation, the first few seconds deliver information that can completely change outcomes.
“There’s that initial assessment: What do I think I’m getting myself into? What am I seeing, and then gauging that command presence. Do I have to stand like I’m encountering a bear and be this formidable person, or can I be more relaxed and position myself verbally?”
Simulations are becoming much more common in police training.
Eriks Gablicks directs Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, or DPSST.
“What we’re trying to do in our academy model is spend 50% of our time in scenario-based training.”
Some of that is vehicles and firearms classes, but much of it, Gablicks says, is going through situations with role players on the 100-acre academy campus.
Gablicks noted that when the Department of Justice was devising a plan to improve Portland police interactions with people with mental illness, role-playing was part of the deal.
“One of the recommendations in the report was the need for more scenario-based training on this issue, and the need to bring in practitioners in the field to co-teach.”
DPSST has some mental health practitioners coming in to the state academy to help with role-playing.
Curious Comedy used a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the performers’ time for the training. If all goes according schedule, all of Hillsboro’s officers will have a chance to train this way by the summer.
Both sides are hopeful they can expand the training into domestic violence scenarios, and situations in which officers interact with people of color.
Listen for a longer version of the story in this week’s State of Wonder, Saturday, Feb. 20 at noon and Sunday, Feb. 21 at 10 a.m.