Last week, I spent two afternoons hiding from and shooting at the police. The week before that, I was arrested several times. No, I’ve not become a one-person crime wave. I have become a role-player for the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois. The Institute believes in giving the officers they train not only book-learning but real world experience, so they include periods where the trainees get to use what they’ve learned. Their instructor will have one or two role players who will act out scenarios and the trainees (usually two working as partners) have to respond. The cadets get to practice in a safe environment before going out into the field.
I’d found out about the role-playering when I went through the Institute’s Citizens Police Academy in the spring. (Please see the index for previous articles where I documented that experience.) I had two decades of being an actor, so I applied to become a role-player and was accepted. Most of the others are current or retired members of police forces in the Champaign/Urbana area, or are family members of police officers. I worked with the wife of the leader of the area SWAT team when role-playing domestic disputes, and later on with their daughter doing building searches.
The Institute has rooms in its basement where some of the scenarios are acted out. These rooms are set up with video recording equipment, and afterward the scene is loaded onto the USB thumb drive each trainee carries. That thumb drive is then submitted to the chief of their department so they can see how the trainee did. The Institute also has a location on the grounds of the Champaign airport, called the Willard Training Center, where they can do building searches, traffic stops, and other situations the officers will run into on patrol.
My first day as a role-player, I’d had property stolen and the trainee was taking the report. Later on, there were domestic disputes, some of which involved physical abuse, where the cadets came into the situation after the fact and had to sort out conflicting stories. It could end up that one partner was arrested, or both of them, depending on the choices the officer made. After each scenario, the instructor would discuss the scene with the trainees and cover what charges could or couldn’t be made as well as other items to remember. For example, when dealing with domestics, the officers should always carry printed sheets with Social Service information and shelter options to give to the victim. If a person – victim or perpetrator – has been injured, they should call for medical help. The person could refuse that help, but the officer would get a signed release that the offer of help was made and refused. The instructor termed them “You have the right to die” releases.
During the last two weeks, I was at Willard. The Institute has a few Quonset huts there, including one set up for physical force training, as well as a large parking lot area. For two days I was partnered with another role-player where the trainees were dealing with reports of suspicious behavior. In one, the other role-player was a man who’d been fired from a business located in one of the huts and he’d come back to break in and do mischief. I was a friend who was helping him break in. When the officers arrived, I was using a screwdriver to pry open a window while my friend was being a lookout. He’d start talking loudly to alert me to the officers’ presence. I would walk away and hopefully get to the corner of the hut to dump my screwdriver before the officers verbally stopped me. A couple of times I did talk my way out of being arrested, at least then. The cadets would always take my name and birthdate and ask for ID; if they found the screwdriver and the scratch marks on the window frame later, I could still be arrested.
The next scenario that day, the two of us had come out to watch a friend solo for the first time, but someone in the tower sees two people hanging around the fence by the runway, gets suspicious, and calls the police. Both in the role-playing, and in the computer simulator we tried out during the Citizens Police Academy, incidents such as this are included, because dealing with innocent situations is also part of the officer’s work. The point here for the trainee to confirm our story in some way, such as checking with the tower to see if our friend had filed a flight plan.
The final scenario of this group was that my partner and I were planning to rob someone, though when the police arrived we spun a story that we’d ran out of gas on the highway and were just looking for someone who might help us out with some gas money. However, one of us had a gun in our pocket. The point was for the officer to see the gun and then react to it. I should mention, though, that for these exercises we had protective gear on, including masks similar to what an ATV rider would wear that covered the full face, with built-in goggles for the eyes. It pretty much wiped out peripheral vision. Whichever one of us had the weapon would start with it in the pocket of our overalls with the end of the gun butt showing, and then as the exercise went on the instructor would have us inch the gun further and further out of our pocket until the officer finally noticed it. When they did, the officer would alert their partner by shouting “Gun” and then either step back and draw down, or physically restrain the role-player with the gun, usually by grabbing them and running them up against the building. Once I had the gun so far out that when the trainee finally notice it and ordered me to put up my hands, the gun fell out of my pocket.
We role-players were instructed not to resist in the scenarios and do as the officers ordered. If we’d resisted, we would have been physically assaulted, since that’s what they’re trained to do – the presence of the gun makes it a life-threatening situation where force would be justified.
The final days where I was role-playing with this training class, they were doing building searches. Even though I wasn’t the one doing it, I found this scenario to be the most frightening. The other role-player and I were up on the second floor of a large Quonset hut where there were three rooms – classrooms at either end of the building, and then a storage room with almost no lighting in the middle. We were armed with paintball guns loaded with water balls that wouldn’t stain the trainees’ uniforms, though they hurt like heck when you’re hit with them. We also wore radios so the instructor could communicate with us during the scenario. There were two stairways going up to the second floor and the trainees had to start by choosing the safest way up. For one stairway, there were two open doors at the top of the stairs, while at the top of the other stairway both doors were shut. The second was the safest, but a couple of times trainees tried the first stairway. I was hiding in the middle room in the dark, and if they went up that way the instructor had me shoot a couple of balls into the stairwell. After that the trainees rethought their approach and went up the other way.
The clearing of the three rooms was handled as separate scenarios, with a different set of trainees in charge of each. In each room, one of us role-players was hiding. In the dark middle room, there was a storage area on one side with chicken-wire fencing on three doors. From the outside, it looked like three separate areas, but in fact they connected. The other role-player I was working with hid in there. Usually the officers found her, but one time she managed to sneak out after the officers had passed the first two doors. Another time, a trainee came in too far without backup and she shot him in the chest before he saw her.
You’ll often see building searches portrayed on TV crime shows, but there’s one thing they usually get wrong: the officers might clear a room, but once they leave it they have to consider they’re relinquishing the territory. If they come back to it, it has to be searched again, since a perp could have sneaked in while they were gone. This was demonstrated once in the third part of the scenario. I was hiding in the third room, fairly close to the entrance. The officers came from the dark middle room, and they used the cover of the doorway after they saw me while ordering me out of hiding. Rather than cuffing me in that room, they took me back into the middle room. The rest of the trainees were waiting in there, watching the scene unfold. While I was being restrained, the instructor had the other role-player come in through the other door to the room. She stood there for several minutes unnoticed, and then shot the two officers cuffing me in their backs. If they’d stayed in the third room to cuff me, they’d have been okay, since they had control of that room.
Being a role-player has given me a new appreciation for police officers on patrol. They’re never sure what they’re stepping into when they respond to a call. While the trainers at the Institute do all they can to prepare them for any eventuality, the officer still has to have the courage to take that step into harm’s way, for the benefit of all citizens. That is humbling to me.