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UWM Actors Help Milwaukee Police Learn to Respond to People with Mental Illness Crisis

Students and graduates of the theater program at UW-Milwaukee are helping Milwaukee police learn how to respond to people with mental illness, who are in distress. The actors present training scenarios at the police academy and instructors walk officers through how to best respond.

There have been cases, including in Milwaukee, when police have shot and killed mentally ill individuals as interactions have spun out of control.

Kimberly Gartrell illustrates the dangers someone with schizophrenia may pose, when in crisis. The UWM theater student is wandering the street scene in the basement of the Milwaukee police academy. It's a dimly-lit space made to look like a couple of city blocks, with storefronts and a roadway.

Trainer Chad Stiles tells two officers to approach the actress, to offer help. They try to speak with her, but she walks and talks in circles. The officers have a hard time getting crucial information from her, such as where she lives and whether she should be taking any medications.

The actress responds fearfully, especially to the question about medication. She tells the officers that she doesn't take any prescriptions, because people are trying to poison her. She grows more agitated as the officers circle her to keep her on the curb. The instructor tells them their behavior can come across as threatening, and they'd be better off giving her space. His comment rubs one officer the wrong way. He says he's been trained to determine whether people pose a threat -- not to give them space. Stiles tries to put the officer at ease.

"We're not trying to teach anything that is going to violate those safety rules that we've trained. So if the situation dictates that you have reasonable suspicion to pat down because you believe there's a threat to your safety, or themselves or somebody else, then legally you can do that," Stiles says.

In a conference room upstairs another trainer, Ross Kuesel, walks officers through a different situation they might encounter. Paul Zaragoza, a graduate of UWM's theater program, sits in a chair at the front of the room. Kuesel tells officers that the actor's character called 911, saying he felt suicidal. He told dispatch that he doesn't have access to weapons.

Unlike the actress in the street scene, the actor's character comes across as calm and courteous. But he poses a different challenge to officers. He doesn't give them much useful information, including whether he's truly suicidal, or how they can contact his loved ones. But the actor does say he misses the pet owl he had as a child, and one officer promises to take him to see the owl, if he agrees to see a doctor. Trainer Kuesel asks the class what they think about the promise. Officers answer that it's a false promise. Kuesel agrees.

"The next time that this happens to him again, the next time he has contact with the police, he's going to remember that the cops made a promise that they didn't keep," Kuesel says.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has been pushing for such programs, called CIT -- Crisis Intervention Team training. Laura Usher is with the organization.

"Officers who go through CIT training are more likely to use less force, they are more likely to take someone to the hospital for care, rather than take them to jail. There's research that shows that officers that go through CIT training are less likely to be injured in these interactions with people in crisis," Usher says.

Not all departments use actors for the training sessions. In fact, Milwaukee police used to play both roles: the officer responding and the person in crisis. But Usher says using actors gives officers a chance to interact with someone they don’t know, who can be unpredictable and possibly frustrating, better preparing police for real-life challenges.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.