St. Paul is teaching its cops to use chill instead of guns

Nyjee Palmer, a Hamline theater student, roleplays a woman causing a scene over a wrong order at a restaurant.

Nyjee Palmer, a Hamline theater student, roleplays a woman causing a scene over a wrong order at a restaurant.

Cops aren't counselors, but they're frequently expected to play them.

Every day they're called to deal with people contemplating suicide, experiencing psychotic episodes, or suffering other kinds of mental breakdowns. They may or may not be armed. Sometimes, it's family members who call 911 when they feel there's no other recourse to protect themselves or their loved one.

In 2015, St. Paul Police's handling of mental health calls came into question with the death of Philip Quinn, a 30-year-old schizophrenic man who told hospital staff he was suicidal, but had been allowed to go home anyway. Quinn's mother called police to save him from himself, but an officer ended up shooting and killing him. Video footage later revealed Quinn charging the officer with a screwdriver.

This and other incidents across the state called for renewed mental health training for Minnesota police. Which is why St. Paul has set a goal of training all patrol officers in crisis intervention before the end of the year.

Last week, recent graduates of the police academy, who have been on the streets just two weeks, took this course at Hamline University, where theater students improvised civilians in various mental health crises.

In the course of the roleplay, the young officers were expected to employ powers of gentle persuasion through empathetic listening, respectful body language, and relatable conversation to calm the students down to a point where they would finally cooperate.

One scenario involved theater Professor Carolyn Levy barricading herself inside a makeshift hospital bathroom. She's high on drugs, upset about her child custody arrangements, and potentially suicidal. (It's based on a real case).

An officer talks to her in a firm but patient tone, repeatedly ensuring her that she's not in trouble for drugs, and teasing out information little by little until he finds the key to making her accept help: her kids.

It's deescalation by the book, but Sgt. Sean Zauhar has some pointers. Speak in an even softer tone, he suggests. Try to match her volume. Even if she refuses to give her real name, ask to call her something other than "Ma'am," just out of respect. Give her space to vent a little so she can calm down on her own.

Levy, who is also the director of social justice troupe Making Waves, has put on productions in the past that were critical of police. Ferguson inspired one play about the differences in how black families and white families teach their children about interacting with cops.

But she's been very impressed with this partnership.

"For some of the kids, they haven't had positive interactions with the police, and this has been amazing, particularly the kids of color who have walked into this process not feeling particularly good," she says. "They're walking away discovering these are individual human beings and that we're doing something that's helping them get better."