Take the Stand, Officer

Hey, I've got an idea. Let's have a domestic scenario, but with a twist. Let's make it a mother-daughter fight where the mother is the primary aggressor. And we could have the mom be this elderly woman in a wheelchair...

Whoa! If this sounds like your usual planning session for scenario-based training, you're short-changing the process--and it could come back to bite you. Imagine yourself on the witness stand...

"Officer, you designed the scenario involving a mother-daughter domestic, correct?"
"What was the purpose of this scenario, officer?"
"To see how the officer would deal with the situation."
"What situation?"
"Well, the batterer was an elderly woman in a wheelchair."
"So the purpose of the scenario was to evaluate the officer's ability to arrest violent elderly wheelchair-bound female suspects. Do you run into a lot of those?"
"I see. Well, I'm sure you must have had a good reason for including one here. Please describe the design process you used to develop The Case of the Paraplegic Perp."

Are you sweating yet? How would you answer the attorney's last question? Do you have an established procedure for building scenarios? Or do you just brainstorm ideas and pick the ones that would be most fun for the instructors?

In an earlier column, I talked about how important it is to have a "curriculum connection"--a tie between the competencies and learning objectives in your state's published law enforcement curriculum and the elements addressed in your scenario-based training. The curriculum connection is important because it ensures that your scenarios reflect the real world of policing. Not surprisingly, if you want to build a court-defensible scenario, the place to begin is with the curriculum.

Step 1: Choose your learning objectives.

Before starting to design scenarios, you should become intimately familiar with your state's law enforcement curriculum. If the competencies and learning objectives are well written, you can use them to guide your scenario development. Suppose, for example, that you are teaching a segment on domestic violence. The first step in developing an appropriate scenario is to choose which learning objectives you want the scenario to highlight. Inevitably, because scenario-based training includes context, your participants will never be practicing skills in isolation--in fact, that's part of what makes scenario-based training so effective and realistic. But you can pick particular learning objectives you would like to emphasize.

Let's build a scenario to emphasize these learning objectives taken from Wisconsin's Basic Training Curriculum (curriculum section in parentheses):

  1. Articulate mandatory arrest. (Domestics)
  2. Define predominant aggressor. (Domestics)
  3. Recognize the factors that influence decision making. (Ethics)
  4. Develop probable cause for violations based on simulated situations. (Constitutional Law)

Step 2: Create a Situation

Certainly we need to have our situation involve domestic violence. After all, our first two learning objectives are taken from the portion of the curriculum addressing investigation of domestics. And we will need to have the officer prepare to arrest the predominant aggressor. All of these would apply to any "ordinary" domestic. But there is one more learning objective: recognize the factors that influence decision-making. One of the ways to build that objective into a domestic violence scenario is to make the domestic dispute be between people other than the usual male-female couple or to make the predominant aggressor be someone unexpected--challenging the officer to overcome his or her preconceived ideas. So our situation will involve a relationship that is not the usual husband-wife or boyfriend-girlfriend and perhaps will include an unexpected aggressor as well.

The relationship possibilities are myriad: a same-sex relationship, roommates, parent-child, brother-sister, disabled person-and-caregiver...all qualify (under Wisconsin law) as domestic relationships if the people live together.

Step 3: Develop Characters and Set the Scene

Once you have the situation--let's use a mother and daughter--the next task is to develop believable characters. Give them some history and a reason for being at odds. We could have a mother who is angry because her grown daughter is still living at home and showing no signs of wanting to become self-sufficient. Or a domineering mother who demands that her daughter stay home to take care of her, preventing her daughter from having any sort of life on her own. Flesh out the characters and history in a short paragraph or two of background for your role players.

Imagine a trigger event for the current crisis (perhaps the lazy daughter ran up the phone bill or the dutiful daughter took a step to assert her independence), causing the mother to become angry. Write a one-sentence description of the event for your role-players and a short call description for the officer to receive from dispatch. For example, "Respond to 123 Main Street for a disturbance. Neighbor heard shouting."

Decide which character will be the aggressor and how that will be unexpected. In our mother-daughter situation, we could have a significant size difference, or make one of them disabled, or make one of them be a well-known public advocate of non-violence.

Step 4: Write the Script

You can't literally write a script because you can't entirely control the plot: you don't know how the officers will respond. You can, however, direct your role players. The easiest way to proceed is to give them a starting point and then develop several "if-then" plot branches.

For example, you might decide that the victim in your domestic should be extremely distraught and weeping when the officers arrive. The other half should greet the officers at the door by saying, "I'm so glad you're here. You can see she's totally out of control. I'm at my wits' end." Next, you provide your role players with several options, depending on what the officers do. For example, if the officers properly separate the halves of the fight and interview each separately, direct your role players to gradually reveal what actually went on. If the officers fail to separate the parties, you might direct your role-players to continue to verbally spar and even escalate to some pushing and shoving if the officers do not control and separate them. Continue to provide direction for as many variations as you can think of.

Realize that you will never be able to dream up every single thing the officers might do. Someone will always surprise you. However, if you spend the time up front considering all the possibilities that occur to you, you can set the tone so that if your role-players do have to ad-lib an unexpected plot twist, they can do so in a way that is consistent with the direction you have set.

An important part of this step is setting limits for your role-players. For each variation, identify actions that the role-players may and may not take. For example, you might decide that if the officers separate the parties, each party may refuse to give information but may not lie outright. Or if the officers don't separate them, they may engage each other verbally but may not try to do so physically. What the permitted and prohibited behaviors are will of course vary, depending on the purpose of the scenario and the physical surroundings. You probably don't want a knock-down-drag-out fight taking place in a borrowed office!

Step 5: Give the Story a Happy Ending--or Not

The final step is to decide what constitutes acceptable outcomes for the scenario, and conversely, what would be unacceptable. In our domestic, for example, acceptable outcomes would include correctly identifying the predominant aggressor and deciding whether there was probable cause to arrest. Unacceptable outcomes would include failing to control the situation or arresting the wrong person simply because he or she was the "obvious" suspect.

What you are doing in this step is setting the criteria for successfully completing the scenario, either for training or testing purposes. Of course, there will be many other aspects of policing that you would like your officers to do properly, regardless of the particular learning objectives addressed in the scenario. You can certainly list these as desirable performances, but except for egregious safety issues, the critical pass-fail criteria should relate to the specific learning objectives outlined in Step 1.

Let's rewind to the lawyer's final question about your design process. If you have followed this procedure, you could easily provide a persuasive answer. Not only that, but if the lawyer were foolish enough to let you, you could go on to explain that you have three other variations on the same scenario--all designed to highlight the same learning objectives, but using different kinds of relationships and characters. Not only have you established that your process is consistent and rational, you have also tied it to state-endorsed curriculum objectives. That combination is tough to beat.