Theater of the Recruits
Boal Techniques in the New York Police Academy
Grace Telesco, Interviewed by Alisa Solomon
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 from their group, then the seven stories are shared in general group, and then they choose one of those to reenact. Maybe it's about a recruit who needed a day off because her mother was very sick and went to request it and was mistreated from the [End Page 56] beginning, with people screaming and then denying the request. The recruit is upset and can't answer back. We redo the scene, inviting people to come in and offer alternatives--what they would say to the lieutenant, for example.
What do you think is achieved through this type of Forum Theater?
I think the recruit, particularly the white heterosexual male recruit who lives in Long Island with his parents, has an awful lot of privilege and access and hardly feels oppressed in any way, but can identify with the feeling as a recruit, and then begins to make some of the connections to the differentials of power we talk about in class, when we discuss gender, age, class, sexual orientation, race. Sometimes all that can seem like white-male bashing, particularly for young white males who are becoming police officers; right away they feel they're on the defensive. But the Forum Theater exercise lets them see and feel the differentials in power. We debrief through the exercise: how does it feel to answer back the lieutenant? And they say it feels great. But in real life they can't really do it. So we use that to draw analogies to institutionalized racism or sexism, for example.
What other techniques do you use to get at these issues?
It's a potpourri, really. The exercises like the one I just described are usually in the classroom setting. We do more scripted, role-play stuff with larger groups in the auditorium around themes like domestic violence which go more toward the question of policing. We'll use actor-trainers in a scene we've scripted, and recruits come into the scene as police officers responding to the situation in a kind of structured improv.
How do these scenes serve your training goals?
In two ways. First, we're using their behavior instructively to engage audiences. We freeze the scene along the way, rather than playing out the scene to the end and then discussing it. That's so important because if you play it to the end, without discussing bad choices as they come along, then you're reinforcing bad behavior. [End Page 57]
For example, we have one on mental illness. In the scenario, there's a person who's schizophrenic. He's dangerous, violent. We want the officers to isolate and contain him. We don't want the officers to rush him or to use deadly physical force. It's kind of a reenactment of the Gary Gidone Busch incident. [In August 1999, police officers shot and killed Busch in front of his Brooklyn apartment, claiming that he was deranged and dangerous.] The recruits have already been tested on paper on procedures and issues around emotionally disturbed persons, and even many who had done well get up there and forget everything. So the theater exercises bridge the gap between theory and practice. It's effective because in a sterile environment, if you make a mistake, we freeze the scene and try again. Out there, you make a mistake and someone dies and you get indicted and you lose your job and the entire career of law enforcement suffers because of your mistake. If we can practice that and play it and replay it and hear what's going on in a character's head and appreciate what they're saying, maybe you'll remember that in the street. Maybe that will help de-escalate a situation, save someone's life, save your life.
Do the recruits call out to freeze the scene, or do you do it?
As I watch the scene begin to unfold, if the officers are escalating rather than de-escalating, I freeze the scene. I don't want the bad behavior to happen. I don't want it reinforced for them or for the audience. I want to prevent it from happening and have us reflect as an audience on: What are we not accomplishing here? Let's point out where the danger lies. Let's point out how we're escalating, not de-escalating. What is it about our language, our body language?
If I get a great answer, I say, "Come on up and join the scene." And each time we freeze, we want to debrief the feelings of the participants. "What's going on right now for you if you're the schizophrenic person with all these cops in your house?"--"I don't know why they're yelling at me. I don't know why they're coming so close to me." These kinds of things.
If you use an incident like the Gidone Busch one, which has had a lot of press, are recruits defensive about it from [End Page 58] the start? Do they feel identified with the officers who were involved, and are they invested in proving that the cops in that incident did the right thing?
We don't present it as the actual incident, and we change it somewhat. We don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of various real incidents that have occurred but stay focused on the broader understanding of procedure, rather than say in the Busch incident or, to take another famous one, the Eleanor Bumpurs incident [an infamous 1984 case in which police shot and killed a three-hundred-pound sixty-six-year-old woman in her Bronx apartment, claiming they were in mortal danger because she was brandishing a kitchen knife], this or that should have been done differently. Procedure and training have certainly changed since Eleanor Bumpurs. What may or may not have changed is police culture, police attitudes toward people with mental illness.
The reaction that occurs when one feels threatened hasn't changed. When all else fails and we forget about isolating and containing, we automatically go to a fight-or-flight response. It's easy for civilians to flee, but police don't think they should ever flee. There's cognitive dissonance in some of the procedure: You're asking me to step back, to retreat? And yeah, we are. They practice that in the theater, in a structured improv where it's all sterile, in the hopes that they can call upon that if they're ever really on the scene, instead of reverting to instinct.
Do the improvs reveal other kinds of reactions recruits might have in different sorts of situations?
Yes. For example, we have a scenario with a homeless person, and one time a recruit began to say racist statements to the character. In a situation like that, you never know--Is he doing this on purpose? Trying to be funny because he's in front of his peers? Is it a posture? Or is this really him? And if he's doing this when a lieutenant is the facilitator and tons of instructors are around, what does that say about what he'll do on his own?
This is the second way the theater exercises serve our goals. I'm privileged to sit on a recruit performance committee. We bring up incidents that raise questions about whether a particular recruit should get a gun and shield, whether she or [End Page 59] he should be monitored. A lot of these incidents occur during the theater workshops. I think it comes out there because they're so real. The tension gets so high that they really get lost in the scene and themselves. Their guard goes down, and out come the racism and sexism and homophobia. For example, we have a same-sex domestic violence scenario where the recruits in the scene totally ignored both the batterer and the survivor, didn't take a report, and just left. Others couldn't stop laughing at the idea of two men as a couple; they found that just too hilarious to do their job.
Much of Boal's work is about giving critical voice to oppressed peoples, bringing illiterate people into literacy and also into participatory democracy. A police academy is not an environment of participatory democracy. As you've said, it's a strictly hierarchical environment. Are there contradictions for you using these techniques, ways in which the critical voice and thinking that the techniques at their core are designed to develop might get in the way of a specific lesson you need to teach?
I run my classes to reflect that I believe not only in the work of Boal but also of Paolo Freire, from whom Boal takes many of his ideas. I believe in dialogue and participatory learning. So even if recruits might not have a voice here I try to engage them as full participants. Full participation serves the lessons--it's not a conflict. I can't make you understand cultural-competence issues. I've got to get you to buy into it. And the only way to do that is by treating you the way I'm asking you to treat others. I can't treat you with disrespect to get you to treat the public with respect. Is that a contradiction in terms of how they're treated in the rest of their career? Maybe.
In some of his later work Boal uses the image "cop-in-the-head" to address internalized oppressions--the cop as an oppressive figure. Do you ever invoke that image when you're working with actual cops?
No, I don't.
Some people who use these techniques, called, after all, Theater of the Oppressed, might suggest that they be used . . .
Only with survivors of oppression. [End Page 60]
Yes, and that their purpose is to free and empower those who have been oppressed. Some might go so far as to say that cops, by virtue of putting on uniforms, are joining the ranks of the oppressors.
So are you engaged in a cooptation? Are you twisting the material in some way?
Police by the nature of their work are oppressors, but they don't have to be. Institutions are oppressive; people don't have to be. We make choices. We make decisions. Maybe I'm being naive. If I get called out right now on detail as a lieutenant, I'm going to be asked to give orders to police officers and sergeants to do things that I may disagree with. During the Diallo protests [when thousands of New Yorkers committed civil disobedience to protest the 1999 police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, on the stoop of his apartment], I was so torn in half by wanting to demonstrate, and yet at the same time I could have been called to the detail. So, yes, I am going to be carrying out oppressive policies. This is an institution of oppression. It's very difficult to swallow the contradiction of just being a part of this agency. But what do we do? Give up on it? Give up on the recruits? Say, "Okay, you're joining a militia, so go ahead, occupy a people-of-color community and have a nice day"? I think we have a commitment, those of us who work inside this agency, to try and help people practice nonoppressive tactics. And I think the best method for doing that is through theater techniques.
That being said--and Freire talks about this all the time--there's a tendency to think you're either the oppressed or the oppressor and there's no in-between. That's not the way it is. Our positionality at any time can change. There are recruits who are people of color, women, queers--and recruits in general are often oppressed because of their status in the institution. Then they graduate and become rookies in precincts and become oppressed in the hierarchy there. If we can understand our positionality, then we understand the point, and then I think these techniques very much apply.
Grace Telesco, a lieutenant in the New York Police Department, heads the behavioral science department at New York's Police Academy. Telesco also teaches at John Jay College of the City University of New York and is a Ph.D. candidate in social welfare at Fordham University.
Alisa Solomon teaches at Baruch College, City University of New York. Her book, Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender won the 1997-98 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.