Improv as Training Tool: How Actors Help Police With CIT Training

Jan. 29, 2024
Improv Asylum actors bring a high level of realism to crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers.

Improvisational theatre companies gained prominence in the 80s and 90s, with troops popping up throughout the country, including schools like Second City in Chicago and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. While improv has been widely viewed as solely useful for entertainment purposes, the Improv Asylum, which opened its doors in Boston’s North End neighborhood in 1998, has found other applications for the craft. Through its IA Innovation arm, the company has offered corporate training for more than a decade. Over the last several years, actors from the Improv Asylum have ventured onto a new stage: working with law enforcement officers and other members of public safety on crisis intervention training.


This article appeared in the November/December issue of OFFICER Magazine. Click Here to subscribe to OFFICER Magazine.


Officer Magazine recently spoke to Bob Melley, Chief Development Officer for IA Innovation, Improv Asylum actor Matthew Griffin, and several members of the Somerville Police Department’s Community Outreach Help and Recovery Department (COHR) about how using improv actors in CIT training has helped create more realistic scenarios for officers.

Identifying a need

Now in its 25th year in Boston, the Improv Asylum performs six nights of shows each week to sellout crowds. “To be able to get up in front of 200 people with absolutely no scripts and from a one-word suggestion from the crowd, they have to build a comedic scene,” says Melley. “It’s definitely a high-pressure environment, and the only way to do that successfully is to listen to each other, communicate with each other, and trust each other. Those are the skill sets that we have developed to build into our training and team building program.”

For the last decade, IA Innovation has worked all over the globe with Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 50 companies, startups and educational institutions. As word of the training program spread, the organization was approached by several groups wanting to see if any of the actors were available to participate in CIT scenarios. The group has since worked with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, the Somerville Police Department and the Andover Police Department.

IA Innovation has been involved in crisis intervention training for close to six years. “It’s a collaborative process. Our actors are seasoned performers. They are very experienced, not only in improv, but also acting,” says Melley. “Their ability to adapt to different situations and go off script to really change a situation. If you visualize it as a scenario where they might be working with a police officer or a correctional officer, there will be a script in mind of what the officer should say, what they should do, but they don’t know what that the other person is going to say.”

Matthew Griffin, who has been a member of the Improv Asylum for 13 years, says working with the corporate world is far more predictable than the work he has done with law enforcement. “A lot of the focus on the CIT training involves individuals who have mental illness or substance abuse issues,” he says. “While there is training for this, it still makes for a far greater and different challenge than anything else. The biggest difference overall being this can involve life or death.”

He stresses that the most important skill in improv isn’t acting but listening. “Since nothing we do is preplanned or scripted it is very important to be listening to our scene partners. This is important because we are not just listening to details of the scene but also listening to how words are being said,” he says. “We are cuing each other in the emotional POV of our characters on how something is said as well. This is useful because the officers are looking for certain emotional indicators.”

Specialized training

Patty Contente, a social worker with COHR, who also facilitates training for the Metro Boston Crisis Intervention Team Training and Technical Assistance Center, says that in 2011, Somerville’s sworn officers, as well as dispatchers, took part an 8-hour mental health first aid for public safety program. They were trained in the same model to create a foundation of understanding on how to recognize and respond to mental health. “We set up this model and we got a grant and funded a part-time clinician in 2011 to do follow-up and diversions, working with the Somerville District Court as well. In 2013, we learned about the CIT Initiative, which is a 40-hour training to inform law enforcement response around mental health,” she says. “We were one of the first departments in the state to become a CIT Training and Technical Assistance Center. Over the years, we’re constantly updating the training, evolving the training.”

COHR always had a scenario-based segment of CIT training around crisis negotiation, using role plays to do the scenarios. Initially, the program didn’t have a lot of funding, so officers would be assigned to act out people in distress while other officers would respond. “We found that that was kind of hit or miss. Some officers were great and very dramatic and able to get into the role, while others were a little bit shy,” she says. “We really had been looking for a way to make those scenarios as realistic as possible. We tried a lot of different things including using volunteers and members of our own staff.”

Contente says things changed when the group was introduced to IA Innovation and began working with Melley to identify actors. Her staff soon learned a lot of the actors had day jobs, some in healthcare. “We found that to be so valuable because they had worked with the population in a different environment and brought that into the scenarios.”

Jennifer Korn, who also is a social worker with COHR and Metro Boston CIT TTAC, says that since the partnership began in early 2021, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “They’re able to be so dynamic and be so in character in a way that is so impressive as someone who has tried to do these role plays myself,” she says. “When they get into it, they really embody it. So, the officer is able to practice, and we don’t know exactly how it’s going to play and how the actors are going to play it. It really does lead to that authenticity, and for us to be able to debrief.”

Face-to-face training

As technology has advanced, virtual reality and video-based training simulation programs have become increasingly popular. Melley believes live in-person training is still the answer. “It always helps to have a live person in front of you. It’s as close to a real-life situation as you can get, and our actors can adapt and pivot in real-time.”

Korn agrees, noting the actors add a level of realism that is important for the officers to practice CIT skills in a safe environment. All of the scenarios COHR uses are actual calls for service. Each scenario follows a script and includes rewards and stings. If the officers ask appropriate questions and respond to their concerns, the actor will begin to comply. If they are not, then the actor will escalate the situation. The staff gives the actor the script of the role play and talks to them about the rewards, stings and goals for the officers.

Melley says the actors are always willing to participate in the scenarios. “They see the impact the CIT training has on the officers and the feedback we get,” he says. “They’re making an impact. They’re just not making somebody laugh. They’re helping folks who have really tough jobs.”

Griffen believes the officers are able to take away something from the training. “I think it gives them the tools to think differently; listen to and understand every individual they respond to and treat during each call as a result.”

To find out more about IA Innovation, visit iainnovation.com

About the Author

Paul Peluso | Editor

Paul Peluso is the Editor of OFFICER Magazine and has been with the Officer Media Group since 2006. He began as an Associate Editor, writing and editing content for Officer.com. Previously, Paul worked as a reporter for several newspapers in the suburbs of Baltimore, MD.

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