Why Cops Are In An Impossible Situation

In last week’s post, Why We Must Understand Before We Judge, I wrote:

“I don’t blame police officers for rushing to judgement; cops got a lot on their plate! Police officers work in a high-stress life-threatening environment everyday. Now add public scrutiny to the mix and thrust them into no-win scenarios. How do you think you’d do as a police officer?”

At the end of last week’s post I promised to explain why police officers are in a lose-lose catch-22 when dealing with mental health crisis calls.

…so strap on your imagination helmets!

Police Question Man on Curb
Imagine police officers being dispatched to an individual acting erratically.

Officers respond to keep the individual and the general public safe. They’re there to help*.

If the individual is in the middle of a mental health crisis even the sight of police officers in uniform can escalate the situation. The individual may be resentful or argumentative or (potentially) pose a threat to the officer’s wellbeing. The individual may not see the need for help or doesn’t want anyone’s help.

The officers have four** choices:

  1. Spend a minute with the individual, tell them to keep it down, say “we don’t want to come back here,” and leave.
  2. Go hands-on, potentially escalate the situation, arrest the individual and transport to jail (or a medical facility) in a matter of minutes.
  3. Call for ambulance transport to medical facility and wait with individual.
  4. Stay, continue to receive the brunt of the individual’s frustration while attempting to de-escalate the individual over a potentially significant period of time in hopes of getting to understand why the individual is in crisis and how best to help.

However, the officer’s commander*** doesn’t want/can’t afford officers to take such a long time to resolve calls.

Not only are the officers being pressured by their commanders, but the community demands a fast response time when they dial 9-1-1.

If an officer stays to help an individual in crisis, then the commander is displeased and parts of the community suffer.

If an officer goes hands-on and quickly clears calls, then the commander and parts of the community are happy, but the individual in crisis may be sent to jail**** whereupon s/he will not receive adequate healthcare which could potentially make their condition worse; and parts of the community are still frustrated by the lack of training to help individuals in crisis.


Pretty shitty situation to be in, right? So what are large cities supposed to do?

Possible solutions may be similar Madison, Wisconsin’s, Mental Health Liaison/Officer Program or the LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit. You can read more about the Mental Evaluation Unit in this story on NPR or listen below.

But to implement such a program in a large city like Minneapolis?

It’d take time, money, resources, and a shift in consciousness from the general tax-paying/voting public.

What possible solutions do you propose?

* = Not all cops are bad. We have to stop thinking police officers are the enemy.

** = There are probably more options, but as I’m not a police officer these are all I see/have heard from my pals in law enforcement.

*** = Or so I’ve been told in confidence by officers in the Minneapolis Police Department

**** = mental illness is not a crime

Why We Must Understand Before We Judge

This is what my head looks like during training.

Today I’m in Hinkley, Minnesota, at Grand Casino with the Barbara Schneider Foundation’s Mental Health Crisis Response Institute for the Mid-America Regional Conference of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators performing in verbal de-escalation (CIT) training scenarios.

Yeah, it’s a mouthful so I’ll keep this short appropriately-long.

However, if you want to learn more about what CIT training is click here to read a very dry explanation.

Or simply read on: it’ll be more interesting.

Okay, so one component of CIT training is live role-playing exercises.

You guessed it, that’s where I come in.

Actors receive a real* scenario of an individual. And the scenario is just that: a general outline stating what’s happening with the character.

For instance, today I’m playing a bipolar character who’s creating a disturbance on a city street. That’s my scenario.

In the past I’ve portrayed individuals experiencing:

  • hyper-vigilance
  • delusions
  • hallucinations
  • aggression

  • irritability
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • paranoia

  • depression
  • suicidal ideation
  • PTSD
  • drug withdrawal

  • drug dependency
  • med withdrawal
  • alcoholism
  • self-mutilation

hello my name is mental illness
Because mental health crises are exhausting, so too is portraying an individual in crisis.

How do I prepare? Plenty of water, a big breakfast, and more details to be shared for another day.

Regardless of how exhausting playing someone with mental illness is, the job is still Acting 101:

  • Develop a backstory/flesh the character out
  • Present signs & symptoms (emotional/psychological/behavioral) accurately
  • Be as realistic as possible.

Oftentimes “realistically as possible” involves saying mean things at whomever is trying de-escalate the situation. Which, periodically, leads the participants in the room to comment on what an asshole I am…

…and this mindset occasionally leads the participant to “poke the bear” and do something like this:

And when the participants say or do things that make the situation worse: things escalate. Any trust or rapport is washed away and the character reacts accordingly. It’s not** pleasant to sting the participants, but it’s what I’m trained to do.

What got me thinking about this was last week’s training with the Minneapolis Police Department. In the scenario my character was hyper-vigilant with no prior mental health diagnosis and for no apparent reason.

When the coach asked participants what they thought was going on with the character a number of them responded, “Nothing. He’s just an asshole. He’s a prick who hates cops.”

Now during the first few years part of me took those comments personally, the other half took them as compliments. As I’ve gotten more experienced as a crisis actor/teacher/trainer, it doesn’t bother me if they call my character an asshole.

What bothers me is if they’re not asking why the character is behaving like an asshole. What’s really going on with this person? And in order for that process to happen participants need to defer judgement.

Unfortunately, deferring judgement is hard and judging is easy. Heck, judging can even be fun! That’s why Katie and I watch The Bachelor! (You were so enjoyable to judge, Olivia!)


For a small number of participants the judgement process happens long before they even enter the classroom! They’ve already decided crisis intervention team/de-escalation training is a joke. Or that CIT training takes away the ability for them to do their job.

What I wish those officers realize is that CIT training adds another tool to their belt. If that’s their mindset they’re able to participate in the process instead of judge*** it.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t get it though.

In high school I thought Mr. Rosholt’s**** Algebra II class was a complete waste of time. Because I decided imaginary numbers were useless and not relevant to actors, I didn’t learn anything.

Hence: why I don’t understand algebra.

It’s a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Thanks to a poor attitude learning and skill building are next to impossible. But I digress…


All the clues and hints my character was dropping for the MPD weren’t picked up on because the officers passed judgement. In 60 seconds they decided I’m not a threat to myself or others, but I am an asshole.

And I don’t blame police officers for rushing to judgement; cops got a lot on their plate! Police officers work in a high-stress life-threatening environment everyday. Now add public scrutiny to the mix and thrust them into no-win scenarios*****. How do you think you’d do as a police officer?

With that said, I do expect more from law enforcement. Police officers are Society’s guardians. They have great power and a responsibility to use that power appropriately.

Yes, they’re human and make mistakes; but it’s also why this training is so imperative. To reduce those mistakes and connect on a compassionate a human level******.

As an actor in the scenario, I know how the character is behaving like an asshole. However, I know something the participants don’t know…yet. (Most actors already know the following.)

Each of my characters has either: some thing that incited the incident causing the character pain OR a very clear, relatable, human quality participants (and myself) will be compelled to empathize with.

It’s the payoff in the scene.

Usually — and especially last week with the Minneapolis PD — the “reveal” changes everyone’s perspective on the character.

And it happened last week. You could feel the energy in the room change. The character wasn’t just some asshole anymore.

It only happened though after the trust was built and a rapport was established. That’s when the character opened up. The officer(s) in the scene was quiet. He listened. He gave space for the character to speak.

We learned why the character was doing what he was doing. Why he was hyper-vigilant. Why he felt shame. Why he was taking it out on himself.

That’s when “the asshole” became a human being again. That’s why we must understand before we judge.

The character was de-escalated. The scenario was over.

And I was exhausted.

At the end of particularly difficult scenarios I like to say two things: “I’m sorry. And. Thank you.”

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all the swearing and yelling my character did. I’m sorry for the horrible things my character said and that you had to listen to. I’m sorry if something the character said upset you. I’m sorry if things got too real. I’m sorry you have to regularly see the worst of society.


Thank you.

Thank you for being here. Thank you for actively participating in the process. Thank you for trying something new and difficult and different. Thank you for being vulnerable. Thank you for taking all you’ve learned and applying it in the field. Thank you for taking care of the people who cross your path. Thank you for potentially one day helping one of my friends or family in crisis. Thank you for your strength and courage. Thank you for the work you do.

From the bottom of my heart.


* = I’m not sure what kind of scenarios other CIT training companies provide their actors. With exception given to clients requesting customized scenarios, all of the scenarios the Barbara Schneider Foundation’s Mental Health Crisis Response Institute employs are based on actual events and real people.

** = Okay, sometimes it’s pleasant.

*** = Judging is easier than allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

**** = Mr. Rosholt, if you’re reading this, I still believe imaginary numbers are completely useless to me professionally. However, as I’m using imaginary numbers in the example above, let’s call it a draw. Thanks for arguing with me in class and your passion for mathematics. If neither of us were so passionate in our beliefs, I doubt I would’ve remembered the exchange. Thanks again, Mr. Rosholt.

***** = More on why this is true next week.

****** = If there are any officers or skeptics reading, please know the number one concern in CIT training is officer safety. Don’t allow flowery language to dilute the importance of this training. (I also know that the longer you’re on the job the more likely you’ll encounter the worst of humanity. Thank you for the work you do, the things you’re brave enough to encounter and endure, and the burdens you bear. I mean no disrespect when I remind you: mental health crises and mental illness aren’t crimes. Individuals in crisis and those living with mental illness deserve and need the compassionate help of Society’s guardians. We put our faith in you.)

See Something Hear Something Do Something

After living in China I can’t not see race. As a foreigner in China you’re four-ten-thousandths (0.0004) of one percent of the total population. The minority. Being the minority was an eye-opening life-changing experience.

Months ago I took an Uber to a multi-level marketing scam job interview. Elias, the driver, and I were discussing race during the ride. Elias told me that as a young boy his mother explained race in the following way:

“Look at the flowers in our garden. Do you see the different colors? They beautiful. And just like flowers have different colors, people have different colors. We’re all beautiful flowers in a colorful garden.”

At any rate, a few weeks ago I finished a film project called The White Ally Video Series (videos coming soon). As you may have guessed the project calls on white people to be allies for people of color. Simply: If you’re a white person and you see/hear another white person say something that’s racially charged, say/do something to remind them it’s not okay.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about race in America…especially as political pundits and candidates alike continue to escalate racial tensions through their incendiary hate speech.

Anyway, I stumbled across Chivas Sandage’s Why I Can’t Say I’m An Ally to People of Color. This quote of hers sums up what I’m thinking.

Credit: Chivas Sandage
Credit: Chivas Sandage

Listening led me to 11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies.

In the linked article above Brittney Cooper, co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, regular contributor to Salon, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers offers this message to white people:

“White people should recognize that the best way to be good allies is to go work among their own people (white people) to create more allies. Too frequently, white allies think we are asking them to come into our communities to affirm our account of racist acts and structures. What we are really asking is for them to 1) affirm that account boldly among other white people; and 2) use their privilege to confront racial injustices when they see them happening, whether in the grocery store or the boardroom.”

And yeah, confronting people for the horrible things they’re saying and doing isn’t comfortable. It’s not supposed to be. Let your discomfort with someone’s racial microaggressions fuel you.

Rather than end here — though I probably should — I want to share a few examples from my own life where I felt compelled to speak up.

It’s not 1949 anymore, Grandma

In the fall of 2008 I was dating a white woman with thick curly dark hair. Kate.

One Sunday we drove out to my grandparent’s home to take them to church. Kate and I arrived at their home early so as to make introductions.

Things were going well when Grandma remarked how lovely Kate’s hair was and asked, “Do you get your curls from your mom or dad?”

Kate thanked Grandma and said she didn’t know as both her parents have straight hair.

Without missing a beat Grandma said, “Must’ve been the nigger in the woodpile!”

I yelped, “Grandma! You can’t say that!” I don’t care if it was a common expression while you were growing up, but it’s not okay. Ever.

I regret not saying something

Fast forward to 2012.

Three years ago when I told people about moving to China I heard a lot of racial microaggressions.

“You’re going to be the tallest person there! Won’t you get sick of rice? Or will you develop an appetite for bow-bow on a stick? How are you going to understand anyone, you don’t speak ching-chong-ching. You’ll have the biggest dick in China!”

That stuff came from everyone everywhere. It didn’t matter if I was in line at Target remarking on the impending move to the cashier or talking to a friend at a coffeeshop.

It’s like all Americans view China* as the common enemy. Thus: it’s okay to say horrible things about China because everyone know China’s horrible.

And when people said these terribly offensive things I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been to China. Could they be right? (They weren’t.) I felt like if I stood up for China I’d be attacked for being unpatriotic or have “yellow fever” or… I don’t know. I was afraid to say something, especially to my friends.

Thinking back on those off-the-cuff remarks, I feel shame for not saying anything. I just let people beat on an entire country and culture I’d later come to love.

I miss China every day.

Hi, I’m Minneapolis’ Faggot Bastard

In January 2008 I was at The New Uptown Diner for dinner.

While waiting in line to pay my tab I couldn’t help but overhear the middle-aged white guy in front of me barking across the counter at a young server. He was degrading the employee, “You understand me? You speak English? Listen, can you hear me Padre?”

The man then tried to communicate with the server in very bad, broken, offensive Spanish.

All the while that little voice inside was screaming for me to do something, but all I wanted to do was leave. I was uncomfortable. The man moved to the side of the register to continue harassing the employee.

The server motioned me forward and I paid my bill. I’m assuming the jerk sensed I wasn’t okay with what he was saying because as I turned to leave the man leaned into me and said, “Hey man, it’s all cool.”

As I was staring back at him something inside of me snapped and I snarled “No, it’s not cool. You don’t have to be such an asshole.”

He started to respond, “Hey, I’m –”

And I said it again, “Yeah, you’re being an asshole!” I turned and walked out the door.

The last thing I heard was him calling after me, “You fucking Minneapolis faggot bastard!”

Yeah, I could’ve handled that one better. But it takes practice.

You can’t win them all

The last time I was involved with the One Act play competition I had acne covering the majority of my face and back. The Supreme Court just elected George W. Bush to his first term and I finally had a driver’s license.

One Act play, Watertown-Mayer High School, 2001
A scene from Watertown-Mayer’s One Act piece in 2001. Yes, that’s me kneeling before the Queen.

Despite the fact neither my high school (Watertown-Mayer) or I ever advanced to the state level — ever — attending the two-day Minnesota State High School League’s One Act play event at St. Catherine University’s O’Shaughnessy auditorium remains one of my favorite activities every year.

But due to living abroad and all I missed the past few years. So this year was special…until the festival’s Oral Critic, Gregg Sawyer, let his racist freak flag fly.

Following the performance of “Rocky’s Road” — a play based on a true story of a white teenager killed by a police officer — Minnesota-State-High-School-League-Official-Gregg Sawyer was critiquing the all-white-cast’s portrayal as “protestors” protesting a boy’s death when he said, and I’m paraphrasing here —

“I know we all have this Minnesota Nice thing, but the judges thought the protestors could’ve been talking over each other more. But they don’t know how to do that because they’re all white! AND I can say that because I’m white!

Mr. Sawyer didn’t say this to five people. He said these words to an auditorium primarily filled with caucasians, most of which happened to be students.

What I heard in the subtext of what Sawywer said:

“White kids don’t know how to be loud, only people of color know how to be loud. And it’s okay I’m saying this because I’m white in a room full of other white people, most of which are minors. So not only do I have power over them because of my age, gender, station, income level, and education, but I also have a microphone and close relationships with a lot of the movers and shakers in the high school/community/semi-pro theater world.”

When he said that I felt like I was punched in the gut. Because — and maybe I’m wrong, but — that’s some racist shit.

After not hearing anything from anyone via Twitter I sent a long email with the above to the MSHSL One Act Play Festival Director, CC:d the MSHSL’s Executive Director, Associate Directors, Coordinator of Officials, as well Mr. Sawyer’s superiors at the Academy of Holy Angels.

No one responded to me about Mr. Sawyer’s remarks**.

light at the end of the tunnel

Two weeks ago I stopped in at North Shore Vape. While waiting in line I overheard a young white male bemoaning to his friends about a rental rate he was charged at a hotel.

“They jewed me on the room!”

I turned to the man and said, “Excuse me. Did you just say ‘jewed’?” He and his friends stared at me.

The man replied, “Does that offend you? Are you Jewish?”

I said, “Don’t say ‘jewed.’ It’s offensive. There are other words you can use.” That was that. Silence.

Then last week I popped back into North Shore Vape. Just as I was about to leave the owner asked, “Remember those guys last week? After you left they talked about you for a good 30 minutes. What you said affected them. They really thought about what you said and they’re going to try to be more aware.”

And that’s the point.

See something, hear something, do something.

Thanks for reading.

* = insert current enemy
** = Chris Franson, the MSHSL One Act Play Festival Director, did respond to a handful of the 16 observations I emailed regarding the festival, however, Gregg Sawyer’s comment was not one of them.