Theater 31.3 (2001) 55-61
[Access article in PDF]
Theater of the Recruits
Boal Techniques in the New York Police Academy
Grace Telesco, Interviewed by Alisa Solomon
[Return to Article]
Lt. Grace Telesco is head of the behavioral science department at the New York Police Academy, where 1,300 recruits are trained each year in a seven-month program. Telesco uses the work of Augusto Boal and other theater techniques as part of the curriculum at the police academy.
ALISA SOLOMON How did you come to use Boal and other theater techniques in police training?
GRACE TELESCO Over the last two years we changed the curriculum tremendously. The Louima incident [Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was tortured by police officers in a Brooklyn station house in 1997] had sparked much outrage--rightfully so--and one recommendation, out of eighty-five of them for the department, was to look at the curriculum and seriously change it. At the time I was in charge of recruitment. The director of training asked if I'd like to come chair the social science department and help rewrite the curriculum.
I looked at the classic three Ms: message, messenger, and method. The message was awful: the curriculum hadn't been changed in twenty years. The academy is a seven-month program, and one discipline, called "social science," was a sort of cop version of psychology/sociology. In essence it was anecdotal, stereotypical, life according to the cop on the street. It reeked of offensive, insensitive terminology and was not at all scholarly. Sometimes you can't fix something; you just have to go in and level it and start over, and that's what we did. We built a recruit curriculum with a social-service perspective and with a real emphasis on cultural competence.
What are the demographics of the recruits? And how do you introduce those cultural-competence issues?
Of the 1,300 recruits, about 60 percent are white and 40 percent people of color, mostly Latino; 14 percent are women. I'm not sure how many reside [End Page 55] in New York City, but my guess is about half. We talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, but we don't really start there. We talk about attitude, foundational stuff around oppression, our personalities and how are they formed, high-octane attitudes like prejudice, institutional prejudices. The basic objective is to raise consciousness. They do a lot of reading--Nancy Foner's book on new immigration in New York, readings on race, class, and gender--plus lots of discussion and some films.
There is also a unit on ethics and mental health, where we talk about police brutality, authority that goes unchecked, mental health of officers as well as of the people we serve. The third track is crisis intervention--domestic violence, child abuse, study of victim behavior, counseling techniques. And fourth is the service role--serving special-needs populations such as the deaf community, the visually impaired, and so on. As for the messenger, our staff had to be diversified, and I did that.
Method is where the theater elements come in. Everybody knows that adults learn best by doing. I find that our most effective sessions are our theater workshops. We do about nine major ones throughout the course, and I encourage instructors to do more in their classes. We use Theater of the Oppressed methods, particularly in the racism, sexism, homophobia sections, to bring up issues, but much of what we do is sociodrama and reflective team exercise.
For example, in a class of thirty or thirty-five recruits, we break them into maybe seven groups and have them tell a story of a time they felt in some way oppressed, put down, or disrespected. Maybe it was in the academy as a recruit--there's a hierarchy and power structure in the academy, and they're at the lowest end of it. Some kind of story of when they felt disrespected and didn't or couldn't stand up for themselves. Each group chooses one story...