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Theater Students Help Train Police

Westminster Theater Students Help Police Training

By Anne Macdonald

A young man stands in a garden with a machete in his hand. He points it at his own throat, threatening to kill himself unless he can speak with his wife, Lexie. One police officer peers around the corner of a building with his gun behind his back. His partner stands behind him with his gun drawn. "You can see Lexie when you put the knife down. You can talk to her and hug her," said the officer.

Not far away, two officers try to calm down a dysfunctional family threatening to hurt each other. No, this is not NYPD Blue or any other TV show--it's Westminster actors re-creating scenarios from police files for crisis intervention training.

"This is not traditional police training," said Lieutenant Terry Morgan, a psychology major ('95). "These officers are learning about communication, perception, and dialoguing with people with mental illnesses."

"As actors, we live in a world of make believe. Here, our make-believe world connects with the real world in a very beneficial way."

--Michael Vought, Westminster College Theater Director

After reenacting the scenarios, a debriefing takes place with the trainees, supervisors, actors, and psychologists. They discuss what went well, what could have been done differently, and how the outcome might be different. The police officers don't just study the scenarios. They study the symptoms associated with various disorders.

"It's very realistic," said patrol officer Rand Mark, who has 25 years on the force. "It's easy to suspend disbelief and be drawn into the play. That's why we carry plastic guns."

In preparing for the role, Westminster's Don Farmer ('02) said the police explain what they wish to accomplish with the exercise. For example, when Farmer played the young man with the machete, the supervisors told him that this was a tactical exercise, and he could not give in if the police broke the distance rule of remaining 21 feet from the person. "Some of the officers got so caught up in trying to help me that they broke the 21-ft. rule, which puts both the officers and me in jeopardy. So when they did advance toward me, I would act like a crazed animal," said Farmer.

In the debriefing, the supervisor of such a situation would point out that the officers broke tactical rules. "The next time the officers find themselves in that scenario, it will be real, and they will remember not to break tactical. If that saves one life, then as actors we did our job," said Farmer.

Communication Exercise for the Police

A young, mentally retarded man in his early 20s, has locked himself in the bathroom for hours, much to the consternation of his sister. Armed with a spoon and some healthy vocal chords, he creates a ruckus that worries his sister because he has never done this before.

The first officer cajoles him, offering to play Nintendo. "Do you like pizza? Ice cream?" he asks.

From inside the bathroom, the banging becomes more violent. The sounds suggest that the young man is becoming more and more disturbed.

Enter Sergeant Lynn Rohland from the University of Utah. She listens for a while, then asks for a spoon. She begins to mimic every sound the young man makes. If he does fast staccato sounds, she does fast staccato sounds. If he does three slow taps, she does three slow taps. The young man becomes calmer and joins in the fun. The next officer picks up on the idea of the spoon and adds other incentives such as games and, once again, pizza and ice cream. Eventually, the young man (played by Westminster's Joshua Craner ('04) taps on the door, then comes out. Communication sometimes takes unusual forms.