NFA actors help Norwich police defuse crisis situations

Officer James Watts, second from left, keeps the boyfriend back while Officer Javier Santiago, second from right, talks to the the drunk girlfriend during a scenario taking place at a bar while Norwich Police Department officers participate in a follow-up de-escalation training featuring student actors from Norwich Free Academy Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.  Daniel Peter portrayed the boyfriend, Kelly Daigneault portrayed the drunk girlfriend and Ryan Cash, background, portrayed the bartender. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Officer James Watts, second from left, keeps the boyfriend back while Officer Javier Santiago, second from right, talks to the the drunk girlfriend during a scenario taking place at a bar while Norwich Police Department officers participate in a follow-up de-escalation training featuring student actors from Norwich Free Academy Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. Daniel Peter portrayed the boyfriend, Kelly Daigneault portrayed the drunk girlfriend and Ryan Cash, background, portrayed the bartender. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Norwich — Police knew back in March they wanted to take their de-escalation training to a new level by putting officers through realistic scenarios.

But doing so raised an issue: Who would do the acting?

The department, Sgt. Nick Rankin said, could have hired a company such as Spirit of Broadway. Instead, it decided to reach out to NFA Playshop, a student acting group Rankin himself was part of just more than 10 years ago.

“We thought it would be nice to have dialogue with the kids,” Rankin said. “That way they can see what goes on here and why we do some of the things we do.”

This week, six seniors and one junior reported to the police department each day to take on various personas: a drunk refusing to leave a bar, a suicidal young man armed with a knife, a husband who’s off his medication.

In each scenario, the actors were assigned “hooks” — words that would make them cooperate — and “hot buttons” — words that would set them off.

Going into each situation, officers weren’t aware of the hooks or the hot buttons of the person in question. They were supposed to use active listening along with a variety of other techniques to figure them out. They had learned the techniques during training that took place in March.

In the scenario with the belligerent bar patron, for example, the hook was football. Officers who figured it out and started a conversation about sports got the person to agree to voluntarily leave the bar. Officers who didn’t were forced to make an arrest.

In the potential suicide case, the actor tipped officers off by repeatedly asking where God was. Those who picked up on the hook — religion — could get the subject to drop the fake knife. But officers who didn’t found him running toward them or taking his own life.

Philip Trostler, who is in his second year as NFA Playshop’s acting coach, said he wasn’t sure his students were prepared to act to the level required by this week’s training.

“I was worried about whether they would be able to get to that intensity,” he said. “But from day one they’ve been yelling, they’ve been screaming. They’re not letting the cops get an easy win. They’ve been challenging these guys.”

Trostler called the setup a win for police and a win for his students.

“I think for (the students), since it’s a real life situation instead of standing on the stage, they know that if they are faking it … the cops aren’t going to get too much out of it,” he said. “Obviously we want to help the cops, but there’s also personal gratification when they’re able to act to the point that it was believable.”

Officers throughout the day commended the students for their ability.

There was Brandon Speight, crying and screaming his way through the suicidal ideation scenario. There was Alex Fitzpatrick, acting as a man with schizophrenia, a drunk and a suicidal person in a four-day span. And there was Katelyn VanLanen, curling into a ball after she ran from her mentally ill father — a man she had watched try to stab her mother.

Speight, like several of his peers, said the experience was unique in that it allowed him to explore more serious, legitimate roles. Until this week, he hadn’t done anything quite like this.

“This is definitely going on my résumé,” he said, adding that he plans to get a bachelor’s degree in acting.

But participating in the training also gave the students new insight into what police do, just as Rankin hoped it would.

“It shows us how we can help as bystanders, how not to get into the situations ourselves and, if we were to be in the situation, how to react,” Fitzpatrick said. “Overall it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had here.”

Germaine Feeney, a junior, said she liked the behind-the-scenes view of the types of calls police handle on a regular basis.

“It’s crazy to think this happens all the time, but it does,” she said. “To know that (police) are going through the training to handle situations like this is relieving.”

“We’ve been doing this four days and it’s kind of exhausting,” VanLanen added. “But to think cops do it every day … it increases my appreciation for them. A lot.”

l.boyle@theday.com

Norwich Free Academy student actor Brandon Speight, left, portrays a man with a knife thinking of committing suicide while Officer Heather Buonanni, right, talks to him to convince him to put down the knife and let them help him during one of the scenarios Norwich Police Department participated in during a follow-up de-escalation training Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Norwich Free Academy student actor Brandon Speight, left, portrays a man with a knife thinking of committing suicide while Officer Heather Buonanni, right, talks to him to convince him to put down the knife and let them help him during one of the scenarios Norwich Police Department participated in during a follow-up de-escalation training Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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