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Hillsboro police officers learn tactics from improv actors

Department, Curious Comedy work on race relations, fast decisions


This story aired on OPB's State of Wonder at noon Saturday. Catch it again at 10 a.m. Sunday on FM 91.5.

www.opb.org/radio/programs/stateofwonder/

COURTESY PHOTO: OPB NEWS/APRIL BAER - Improv actor Nate Smith, in character for the day's exercises. All scenarios were drawn from actual case files Hillsboro officers faced in the field. Hillsboro police training officer Roberto De Guilio looks on.Curious Comedy’s team is usually going for laughs. But there’s nothing even remotely funny about the scenes they were acting out recently at the Hillsboro Police Department’s training facility.

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.”

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. COURTESY PHOTO: OPB NEWS/APRIL BAER - Hillsboro police officer Stewart Kelsey (right), responds to a mock call during a recent training exercise. Curious Comedy's Nate May (left) is playing a man experiencing delusions.

The improv team studied case files and videos to prepare for these sessions, and came up with strategies to try to shake officers’ cool. 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 ... ?”

Curious 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.

Oregon Public Broadcasting is a media partner of the Pamplin Media Group. This story first aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting (FM91.5) on Monday, Feb. 16. Listen for a longer version of the story on this week's State of Wonder, which will air Saturday, Feb. 20 at noon and Sunday Feb. 21 at 10 a.m.