Clad in a jacket, gray beanie and black fingerless mittens, Carolyn Levy hid underneath a blanket fort and quibbled with two St. Paul police officers Wednesday afternoon.
“We want to help you,” said officer Lamichael Shead. “You just have to talk to us.”
“You’re cops?” Levy asked. “Did the president send you? I’m going to get in trouble if I go with you.”
The exchange seemed to plateau as Levy complained about being harassed by students at her railroad yard encampment, but eventually, Shead and officer Jessica Stiffarm convinced Levy to admit herself to a hospital for examination.
The back-and-forth took place on the second floor of Hamline University’s Klas Center as part of the department’s crisis intervention training, but police and actors hope the mock calls will aid officers in the real world.
“I really leapt at the opportunity” to participate, said Levy, a theater professor at Hamline and director of the school’s Making Waves: Social Justice Theater Troupe. “The scenarios get very real.”
Twenty-five of the Police Department’s recent academy graduates are undergoing a week of crisis intervention training at Hamline, where the troupe’s actors mimicked myriad mental health symptoms to test their ability to de-escalate tension. Several speakers and advocates also addressed the officers, who will make visits to Regions Hospital and other locations.
It’s the first time the department has staged its own in-house crisis intervention training. Previous training was outsourced to a private company.
“It’s important to have strangers do it … so this has been a very effective learning strategy,” said Sgt. Sean Zauhar, a coordinator in the training unit who organized this week’s training. “I’m just glad we got to use people in the community.”
The training also dovetails with the troupe’s goals of bringing attention to social justice issues around race, gender and sexual orientation, among others.
“It’s just great to be a part of something that can improve how our society deals with individuals with mental illness,” said Aida Shahghasemi, the troupe’s assistant director and an actor in this week’s training.
The scenarios were based on exercises used by other agencies across the nation, and included depression, suicidal behavior, schizophrenia, delusion, dementia and traumatic brain injury. As a twist, the department included one scenario in which an actor exhibited signs of mental illness that were actually symptoms of diabetic shock.
Although actors were given a page-long description of the scene and their character’s symptoms, they improvised all of their dialogue and reactions, tailoring their responses to each officer’s actions.
Joe Hendren, a Hamline theater student and troupe member, acted out symptoms of schizophrenia, shutting down as officers tried to convince him that people entering a nearby bar weren’t a physical threat to his safety. In character, Hendren expressed delusions of being an undercover FBI agent.
Each round of role playing unfurled organically, Hendren later said, with officers responding in unique and different ways.
“I thought they went really well,” Hendren said of the exercises. “There’s definitely a give and take there.”
A veteran officer served as a “coach,” observing each scenario and debriefing the officers and actors afterward. Dr. Garry Allen, a psychologist at Regions Hospital, also observed several of the exercises, providing insights and tips.
Officer and coach Cindy Rost debriefed officers Charles Busch and Kevin Besaw when they hit roadblocks in their scenario with Hendren.
“You guys were thinking you were getting things for a [police] report — I have to ask this, I have to ask that,” Rost said. “You have to get away from that. You have to build rapport.”
“It really does work on the street. You’ve got to drop your officer shield and put on your human shield.”
The in-house crisis intervention training will become standard for all new academy graduates, with the goal that the entire department will also undergo the training, Zauhar said. More than 200 officers have already received crisis intervention training, he added.