Crisis in 'Cruces
Albuquerque Actors Teach Old Cops New Tricks
By Os Davis
AUGUST 7, 2000: It's an idea so simple, you wonder why nobody thought of it first. A germ of inspiration and a little extra change for a handful of university students nine years ago has grown to become a nationally-known company. Based in Albuquerque, The Crisis Company has become one of the single most unique service providers in America.
Like innumerable products of inspiration, The Crisis Company was born of necessity. In 1991, criminal psychologist Pete DiVasto was to teach members of the federal Department of Energy in the art of crisis intervention and negotiation. While on paper this tutorial seemed merely to be just another course, the reality clearly indicates otherwise. No amount of book learning can prepare law enforcement officers for the unpredictable realities of hostage-taking and terrorist-type activity.
DiVasto and DOE, therefore, were presented with quite a problem: Teaching negotiation technique is one thing, but covering every single possible situation an officer might face in the field is quite another. Given the limited amount of time for the training, how could these real-life situations be properly simulated in a classroom environment? The only readily available possibility--having DOE reps play the parts of bad guys--was problematic and unsatisfying. Applying a little lateral thinking, DiVasto figured if cops can't act, why not get actors?
Enter Dr. Brian Hansen and the UNM Theater Department. After being contacted by DiVasto, theater professor Hansen quickly held auditions for the roles of various bad guys and took them to train DOE representatives. The training was successful enough to result in further requests for actors. One of the original troupe, Liz McCarty, soon took over the growing burden of organization and scheduling from Hansen. The group was soon called to participate in other training exercises with DOE, Albuquerque Police Department, and, thanks to positive word-of-mouth publicity, the thespians were working with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office and even Albuquerque International Airport.
By the end of the decade, The Crisis Company (only one of two such organizations in the United States) had expanded service to well beyond Albuquerque, receiving contracts to train would-be crisis negotiators in Los Alamos, Houston, and Portland Ore. as well. Some 130-140 APD officers have undergone supplemental training with The Crisis Company, representing more than 20 percent of the local police force. Now that the company is a fully independent entity, McCarty says the company has come a long way since the early days of working through temp services, when "agencies would call us and say, 'We'd like two psychotics and a rape victim.'"
The Crisis Company's latest gig took them to Las Cruces earlier this month. Four of the troupe's dozen or so current members walked more than 50 students (including city, county, and state field officers, plus NMSU and Mesilla law enforcement representatives) through a 40-hour training session designed to make these officers crisis negotiation specialists. This training was organized by Nicole Gurley of the Forensic Intervention Consortium of Doņa Ana County (FICDAC). LCPD's Lt. Mike Cole, meanwhile, headed classroom sessions and acted as facilitator between Crisis Company role-players and trainees.
This marked the first time Crisis Company had worked with Doņa Ana or Las Cruces law enforcement departments; the landing of the contract proved once again that word-of-mouth often makes for the best advertising. "I didn't know such a group existed until [APD's] Sgt. Petit told me about it," says Cole. Once he trained with The Crisis Company in Albuquerque, however, he realized that the players would be perfect to assist in what Cole sees as "our problem in Las Cruces." Though "crisis intervention is nothing new, the level of problems we're seeing here is." While Las Cruces has experienced steady growth over the last 20 years, the city's mental health resources have been unable to keep pace: said resources "are pretty limited here to assist those in need."
Under New Mexico's "Emergency Evaluation Statute," explains Cole, law enforcement officers are required to take perpetrators suspected to be mentally ill in for immediate evaluation. "Many people on the streets today," Cole opines, "would have been involuntarily committed two decades ago." Indeed, FICDAC's progressive "Jail Diversion Program," wherein the psychologically disturbed are given seven to 10 days of food, lodging, and counseling, is "already full" one month after starting up. While Cole and FICDAC would like to avoid legal and financial liability concerns of incarcerating the mentally ill (who are often undiagnosed as such when first becoming involved with law enforcement representatives), officers untrained in making what is basically an on-the-spot diagnosis merely add to extant problems of overcrowded prisons.
Cole, impressed with the results that training with The Crisis Company has achieved in Albuquerque, feels their assistance is key in solving Las Cruces' and Doņa Ana County's problems. "We're trying to repeat [APD's] success. We want to do it right in Las Cruces," he adds.
Doing it right in this case involves four days' worth of acting on the parts of Crisis Company role players. Divided into what McCarty and company have dubbed "scenarios," the four players put officers through the paces, realistically presenting situations (replete with makeup and props pulled from what the players call "the bag of tricks") including domestic violence, amphetamine psychosis, and threatened suicide.
The players have to deliver consistency of character while simultaneously keeping officers on their toes with unexpected twists and turns. Crisis Company veteran J.R. (all members of the company represented in this story have asked their full names not be revealed), a physically imposing guy with a passing resemblance to Jesse Ventura and experience as bouncer and security guard, says "the key is to test the mettle of the officers" while teaching them how to be non-confrontational in very confrontational situations. It's an excruciating test of improvisational expertise that has earned The Crisis Company a sterling reputation.
"Crash," a graphic designer by trade who also worked as bouncer for three years, has two years of employment in The Crisis Company under his belt, making him the newbie of the quartet sent to Las Cruces. Admitting that he was a bit intimidated in his early assignments, he has since grown into the demands of the job. "I've gotten comfortable," he says, adding, "I've gotten to the point where I can do the scenarios by heart." Isn't it difficult to immediately jump into the role of paranoid schizophrenic with little or no preparation time? "One thing that [McCarty] taught me that has really stuck is: when the hat's on, I'm myself. When the hat's off, I'm working. When they say go, I bring it on."
The hat is off J.R.'s bald pate. For the next hour, he is to act the role of psychotic, effectively barricaded in the men's room of a fast-food restaurant. While J.R. will adjust his reactions and statements for each individual officer's attempts to coerce him out, certain consistencies of this character's story remain: he makes little sense through the closed door, referring to an "Officer Whitebrain" who attempted to "take his diploma away" and, by doing so, "hurt his arm." If he closes his eyes, "the bad cops can come in and mess with my head." Only coffee works, he says. Sometimes he's engaging, sometimes he's recalcitrant, but always is he "testing the mettle" of Lt. Cole's group.
It's the first exercise of the week-long training, and the first time the future crisis intervention negotiators get to display the skills they've been learning academically. Due to the character's obvious paranoia and seeming harmlessness, this appears to be a simple scenario, but there's more here than is apparent to the eye. Though this perp is easily engaged in conversation (a little too easily, remarked one officer who barely got past "OK" when J.R. decided to make the character a lot more loquacious for one variation) and obviously pretty harmless, there's more at work here than the typical exchange of Q&A.
"The main thing," one LCPD trainee offered after the simulation, "is trying to get information, trying to ascertain if he needs medication or anything. It's important to gain a rapport." The on-hand psychiatrist brought on board through FICDAC efforts, Dr. Smith (not her real name) agrees, asking the trainees to note the perp's negative responses to "why" questions; it puts the perp on the defensive, she explains. Also good to remember: "In a situation like this, never lie. A paranoid will catch you in a lie every time."
During a break, J.R. talks a bit about this scenario. "This is a good one," he says. "In this one, I've got the control." Playing a suicide opens up a nice range of improvisational possibilities because of the inherent nihilism and lucidity of the character. He points out that a suicide is not necessarily insane, but the scenario allows J.R. to run the entire gamut of his emotional range, a challenge most any actor relishes.
The suicide of the scenario is represented by an individual spotted on the outside of a hotel's 11th floor balcony railing. Lt. Cole specifically asked the Company for this scenario--originally developed for exercises in Houston--because an identical situation had occurred in Las Cruces this summer. "It's one of the most anxiety-producing scenarios," Smith says, and indeed, though acting, officers taking a shot at talking J.R. "down" are visibly nervous. This sort of situation is usually "a logistical nightmare," according to Cole, requiring would-be crisis negotiators to gain control, slowing the course of events.
It's difficult for cops who are often trained to act quickly to do so, and it's infuriating for those such-trained to be verbally deflected at every turn. The lucid suicide can counter any standard argument. "We're concerned," says one trainee. "Oh yeah, why?" slaps back J.R. A response of "What you're doing isn't good" is answered with "How do you know?" And again the "why" question is proven to be useless. "Why are you out there?" asks one cop shortly after entering the "room." "Why not?" is the obvious reply of the seriously depressed.
The lesson here is simple. "The slower you go," the lieutenant explains, "the better off you're gonna be."
Lisa is a pre-school teacher, trained actress, and four-year-plus Crisis Company role player. On this day, she applies her acting ability to an afternoon session featuring another nightmare scenario Cole claims "has almost gotten trendy in Albuquerque and Las Cruces": that of hindrance on a major highway.
In this scenario, Lisa plays out the same situation--aimless mentally ill woman obstructing traffic on the overpass over I-25 and Lohman (a major Las Cruces thoroughfare)--three different ways. Getting into character, the actress outfits herself in newspaper hat and cheap sunglasses while carrying a beaten envelope filled with flowers, weeds and change. She even affects a facial twitch for further realism. Lisa's character "Suki" is to take on various degrees of psychosis, leaving the officers to quickly determine her potential harmfulness and psychological problems.
Sgt. Atencio of the Albuquerque Police Department facilitates the group dealing with Suki. He has experience with both The Crisis Company and real-life incidents on I-25. Though at times Suki's antics and conspiracy theories seem over-the-top--"The government wants everyone to own a Ford" is one assertion, her insistence on "blessing" the cars passing by with flowers a character trait--Atencio puts it all in perspective. "We've all dealt with this person before, right?" he rhetorically asks the trainees.
This particular scenario demonstrates the importance of proper training in that any number of potential reactions result, from calmly talking Suki into a police car to taking her down when physically possible. It also demonstrates the limitations of traditional police training; while "The Book" reiterates time and again that officers are not to play into a perp's delusions, many trainees are tempted to do exactly that, meeting with an exponentially more difficult situation when Suki exposes their ignorance of the "truth" she preaches.
Demonstrated, too, is The Crisis Company's importance to this sort of training. Atencio hopes that the lesson trainees learned in this scenario will stick with them. He ends the afternoon session with the summation, "Police are not always in control and we need to stop thinking we are."
In the end, The Crisis Company is all about the power of knowledge; the point of these trainings is to teach police that perhaps the most powerful weapon they carry is the mind. Crisis Company actors themselves have gained important knowledge through the years as well. "I've learned a tremendous amount," says Crash. "There are a lot of times that I have a lot more respect for [police], now that I know the number of things they have to deal with, to think about."
Is this sort of work hard on the actors? "If you're dealing with content that is distressing," says McCarty, "and we usually are, it takes time for the mood to wear off. It's a lot more tiring than you could imagine." In the late afternoon, these four sure do look bushed; hell, this reporter was exhausted just by observing.
About the only folks appearing more tired are the officers themselves in the wrap-up concluding this day's training. One trainee hopefully spoke for this entire group of future crisis negotiation specialists when he said he'd learned that "we have to be human. We have to use our emotions on the job. We can't do everything by the book."
"What makes me feel good," says Crash, "is knowing that I gave them what they need. It's what Crisis Company's success is all about."
Cole is hopeful as well, saying early results made him "pleased to see law enforcement making an effort to take on a different approach." Any skepticism that FICDAC and Gurley might have had previously is blown away, as Gurley says, "This is the best way to learn. There are no ABCs in crisis negotiation--it's more art than science. And like any art, practice is the most important thing." This training session with Crisis Company, she says, has proven that the expense is "worth it for this community."
The Crisis Company members hope to help the greater good as well, expanding their very scope of community. Or, as J.R. said at training's end, "another day gone, another day making the world less rotten."
Rarely does either The Crisis Company's work or a large-scale law enforcement project see such immediate tangible consequences, but Lt. Cole was happy to report direct success from Las Cruces Police Department's week-long session with the company.
On the Saturday following the five-day exercise, LCPD officer Paul Delvecchio--one of the newly-trained crisis intervention specialists--was able to de-escalate a confrontation with a man wielding a knife and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. No harm came to the man, bystanders, or officers, and the prepetrator has entered the Jail Diversion Program.
A difference has been made in Las Cruces.
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