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Power Up Policing with Improv – PT 1

Say what?

In improvisational theater (aka “improv”), actors create something on the spot -- whether it be a song, a character or, in some cases, an entire TV show or movie. Improvisers create entire scenarios and shows from audience suggestions or just a story spine. Nothing is predetermined.

What does improv have to do with policing? How about:

  • Better communication skills – including effective listening
  • Ability to think on your feet
  • Ability to read people
  • Ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes
  • Staying cool and calm in a stressful situation

In this article, I’ll make the case for training officers to be good improvisers and I’ll give one example of how to use improv to power up scenario-based training. Next month, I’ll give more improv exercises for:

  • Powering up scenario-based training and street tactics
  • Powering up recruit and in-service classroom training
  • Improving morale and performance back at the station

The case.

A big part of policing is improvising. While TV and movies are inundated with cop drama, real cops live in an unscripted world. Officers must be able to think on their feet and -- improvise.

So, why not train officers to be good improvisers? It won’t just help them on the street; it will also make them better co-workers, trainers and leaders.

Corporate America, driven by the bottom-line (performance, productivity, profit) is investing in improv. More and more companies are embracing improv as a way to achieve important business and organizational goals. Many top Fortune 500 companies are hiring improvisational theater experts to engage their work force in improv exercises.

Kat Koppett, who wrote Training to Imagine – Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning, trains many top companies -- Microsoft, Dell, Sony, Price-Waterhouse. The Wall Street Journal is extolling how companies are tapping improv to teach workers new skills. (Link below.) Even major league baseball is in on the act -- using improv-based training to help rookies assimilate into the Big League. (Link below.)

These days, the most successful businesspeople are those who can forge strong relationships, react quickly to changing circumstances, and solve problems fast. Tose skills are the fundamentals of improve. As a result, a growing number of companies are realizing that they need to know how to improvise better. The same goes for successful policing.

Whole-brained training, policing and leading.

By its nature, improvisation taps into the whole brain. In a lot of police work and training, people operate from their left brains -- where they can analyze, judge, and act methodically. There are good reasons for this and cops who don't analyze and discriminate may not have long careers.

But, we're built with a two-sided brain for a reason. Why not bring the right side of the brain -- which controls flexibility, innovation, creativity and adaptability – to every call, every training moment and every leadership opportunity?

Abraham Maslow, a well-known psychologist for his theory on human motivation and our hierarchy of needs, said,

“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Improvisation can open the brain up to other tools. One of the risks in specializing is it can reduce your repertoire. Just as an example, specializing in defensive tactics may have an officer responding to a threat with a particular blow, then -- as the challenge morphs -- a harder blow, then a harder blow to the head. This may be excellent, tactical specialization but law enforcement is nothing if it isn’t diverse.

I learned the power of improv the first day I was on my own student-teaching a 5th grade special education class. As I entered the room most of the kids were out of their seats, shouting, and trying to be heard above each other. This wasn’t in the manual (left brain data retrieval), so I went with my gut. I walked silently to the center of the room, and began whispering. The kids all stopped and strained to hear what I was saying.

“If you want to hear what I’m going to say next, you’re going to have to gather round me in a tight circle.”

Curious, the kids quietly gathered round and I whispered even more softly,

“I’m going to close my eyes and I want you to tiptoe to your seats so quietly that I can’t hear you. If I hear you, I’m going to point at you with my eyes closed and say, ‘Simon says stop where you are!’ and you have to stop. If you all make it to your seats without being stopped, I have an amazing story to tell you.”

I always keep a pocketful of amazing stories handy and I had to pull one out that day.

Later, when I was a state prosecutor running on the streets of Anchorage, Alaska at lunch-time silently rehearsing my opening statement for the next day’s trial, I saw a lone teacher trying to keep a group of more than a dozen active kids queued up on the sidewalk. They weren’t listening – until she turned them into an Iditarod sled dog team, swapping in whoever listened best as the lead dog, and shouting “gee” and “haw” to make them turn right and left.

Improv is about being in both sides of your brain so you can think outside the box of just one side.

Warm-up for scenario-based training with improv.

Some people seem to be naturals at improvising. The rest of us can learn from practicing what the professionals do -- improv exercises.

Scenario-based training for recruits and officers is invaluable. Just like scrimmaging is for athletic teams. But stretching and strength training is also an essential part of most athletes’ preparation. Improv exercises are to scenario-based police training what stretching and strength training are to athletes.

Here’s just one 10-15 minute improv exercise from Kat Koppett’s Training to Imagine (pp.163-165) that could be used to stretch recruits’ listening, awareness and multi-tasking skills before any scenario-based training.



  • Split the recruits into triads. If there are left-over recruits, create groups of 4 with 1 observer for each round.
  • Have the groups stand in a horseshoe.
  • The recruit in the middle is on the “hot seat.” She opens an imaginary photo album.
  • The recruit on her right is in charge of asking her to describe the photos in the album. For example, “Who is that?” “What is he wearing?” “Where is that place?” “What is the painting in the background?” (This stimulates right brain thinking.)
  • The recruit on her left periodically asks simple addition and subtraction math problems simultaneously, using the previous answer as the first number of the next problem. For example, “What is 3 plus 3” … “minus 2” … “plus 10?” This requires the middle player to both do math and remember the previous number. (This is left brain activity.)
  • After a few minutes, the participants switch, until each person has played each role.


  • Model the activity before it begins.
  • Coach the recruit asking questions not to provide too much information. For example, ask “Who is that?” not “Who is that woman sitting in the rocking chair with the red wig?”
  • Coach this recruit to switch the topic or turn the page if the “hot seat” person seems to be getting too comfortable.
  • Remind the recruit asking the math problems to keep them simple. This exercise is hard enough.
  • The math problems should be asked at intervals that keep the “hot seat” recruit on her toes, but allow her to spend some time focusing on the imaginary pictures
  • Coach the recruit in the middle to keep talking until interrupted with a math problem and then go right back to describing the picture.
  • Coach this recruit to say a number quickly and move on, even if she isn’t sure she’s right.

Suggested Debrief Questions:

  • What do you think is going on in this exercise? (We’re stimulating our brains visually, orally, aurally, creatively and rationally all at the same time.)
  • How many found it harder to do the math? How many found it harder to describe the pictures? What might that tell you about what you tend to take to a call and what you need to work on?
  • Did your descriptions surprise you?
  • What did you notice while you were asking for descriptions? Math problems?
  • What images do you remember?

Stay tuned.

There’s a reason we have recruits do PT and defensive tactics training in preparation for scenario-based training where we expect them to apply those skills. The same reason holds for doing “IT” (Improv Training) to prepare recruits and officers to be good improvisers. The exercise above is, as the author notes, a “virtual brain gym.”

Next month we’ll look at some more IT for recruits, officers, law enforcement trainers and leaders.


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About The Author:

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website: