Stage Door News

Stratford: Stratford police employ local actors for scenario-based training

Thursday, April 1, 2021

An alcoholic whose elderly parents are dying from COVID-19 tries to kill himself by overdosing on pills.

A loving husband calls 911 for help when his wife falls into a schizophrenic episode after a change in medication.

A scared mother calls the police on a man she doesn’t know is autistic after she sees him playing with young kids in a park.

For the past 10 weeks, Stratford police officers have been learning how to navigate and de-escalate scenarios like these with the help of local actors as part of a new training program meant to provide police with the experience and tools they need to think on their feet and respond to the wide array of mental-health and addictions issues they encounter daily.

“This year we decided we wanted to add a little more of a de-escalation piece to (officers’ annual training), focusing more on mental health and some of the other things that we tend to see out on the road — autism spectrum, addiction, stuff like that,” Stratford police training facilitator Sgt. Matt Peck said. “It’s part of policing now and we have to embrace it and we need to focus on how to deal with it to help people in our community.”

Part of this year’s five-day officer training program, the Stratford Police Service partnered with Supporting Roles Interactive Training Inc., a Stratford company that offers scenario-based training with professional actors for businesses and business schools, medical students and physicians, and police officers and officers in training among others. Though the company has conducted training for police colleges and other formal officer training institutions in the province before, founder and CEO Anne Coughlan said this is the first time the actors have worked directly with a local police service.

“We were pretty excited to get the call from Stratford Police Service because I’m from Stratford as well,” Coughlan said, adding that most of the company’s actors are also Stratford locals. ” … It’s been really cool to be able to partner with the police service. They came to us with a crystal-clear mandate of de-escalation, diversity, equity and inclusion, so we were able to collaborate and put together about nine or 10 scenarios and we cover at least eight or nine in the three hours that we have with (every) officer.”

Each scenario ties together a number of complex issues that the Stratford officers have to identify and navigate to de-escalate the situation to a point where they can help without the use of force, if possible. Complex mental-health issues, alcohol and drug addiction, and cultural and communication barriers are all on the table — as they would be in a real-world police encounter — as officers dig down to the root of the call and try to find a solution that helps everyone involved.

The actors, meanwhile, have thoroughly researched their roles and have prepared to the point where they can almost entirely embody the characters in these scenarios. They feel what those characters would feel in a given interaction and use improvisation to advance the scenarios in whatever direction is most reflective of how a real person might behave.

“I play different characters, so at one moment I’m dealing with racism, I’m also dealing with mental health, with fear and anxiety, with hate crimes, and I’m also a really (angry), terrible landlord who’s calling for help,” said Sherine Thomas Holder, a London-based actor with extensive experience and training around portraying people with mental-health and addictions issues.

” … Overall, it’s been a really amazing experience because I notice from week to week — from the first scenario to the last scenario — each of the officers, whether they have a year or 25 years (experience), they start changing their approach, which shows that they’re really interested and actually learning and making a difference.”

A key piece to this scenario training comes after the scenario itself has resolved. At that point, Peck, the officers being trained — usually there are one or two per scenario — and the actors take turns discussing how the officers handled the situation, what they did well, what they could have done better, and how they could approach a similar situation in the future.

“There’s this cross-pollination of learning, not just with the officers but with each other,” Stratford actor Edward Daranyi said. “Being able to be in a scenario with Sherine and think about the direction that it’s going and being able to play off one another (is key) because you know that learning is essential to those officers.

“But then hearing them kind of riff with one another about how they proceeded and why they did so, and then having the opportunity to be able to say, ‘This is how I felt inside (as the character),’ … to give (the officers) pointers from the inside … is outstanding. It’s a lot and it’s something you have to practice as an actor.”

Another Stratford actor, Tony White, said one of the most common comments he hears from officers in those post-scenario debriefs is that these acted scenes are nearly identical to those situations officers face in the line of duty — many of which require split-second decisions that could make the difference between life or death.

“They say, ‘I’ve been on these calls and this is exactly what happens.’ It shows the merit of the actors to be able to do that,” White said. ” … It really reinforces or readies (officers) for those situations.”

And that’s the whole point of this scenario training.

Though it’s a brand new program for the local service, Stratford police Chief Greg Skinner said it’s a key component to the police service’s ongoing efforts to move away from the traditional, one-size-fits-all method of policing and toward a more community based approach that leverages all available resources and expertise — both within and outside the organization — to focus on the unique needs of each person officers interact with.

“There’s no recipe for these things,” Skinner said. “You really have to be tuned in to the individual and adjust your response accordingly if you want to have the best outcome. … We’re putting people into uncomfortable positions and that’s what policing is about. We want people to learn from training and, in stressful situations, be able to default to their training so they can respond in the best way possible that keeps everybody safe.

“I think this type of atmosphere, when you’ve got trained actors who are really doing a great job of making this as realistic as possible, puts our officers in the best position possible to respond to real-life situations.”

Already a success in his eyes, Skinner says he hopes to keep this type of scenario-based training as part of the police service’s overall curriculum going forward. Both Skinner and Coughlan hope other police services in the province might also consider adopting this style of training.

By Galen Simmons for

Photo: Actor Sherine Thomas Holder plays a woman in the midst of a schizophrenic episode in this police-training scenario. Stratford Const. Jake Rock tries to coax her to a point where she will allow police to take her to a hospital for assessment. © 2021 Galen Simmons.