Power Up Policing with Improv – PT 1

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.

“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?
  • Enhance your experience.

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