At a workshop this week, Chicago police recruits took on the roles of frightened black teens being pulled over by the cops.
The training is a collaboration between the Chicago Police Department and Storycatchers Theatre, which hires young people who have been arrested or gotten in legal trouble before.
The police recruits played their scripted roles alongside some of those young people in a dramatic scene based on the personal experience of a former Storycatchers member.
In the scene, written by Storycatchers, a group of innocent black youth are pulled over by police because their car matches the description of a vehicle used in an armed robbery. Some of the officers in training play the roles of the cops making the stop, other trainees play the scared kids in the car.
Chicago Police Officer Tim Crawford, who helped organize the workshop, said the aim is to expose soon-to-be-officers to different people and different perspectives, and help them understand why some residents may be distrustful of police.
“For many people that come to join the department, they’ve come from out of town, suburban or even out of state,” Crawford said. “So we try to expose them to as many people as possible so that they understand that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
In the workshop, the traffic stop scenario is acted out two separate times. The first roleplay is meant to show the stop from the perspective of the young people being pulled over. They are confused and nervous, and they see the officers as gruff and uncaring.
The second time around, the stop is depicted from the view of the police officers to show their concerns and perceptions.
“I thought it was a really good scenario because it forced everybody in the room to see both sides of the issue,” a police recruit named Brock said. WBEZ agreed to withhold the recruits’ last names because media coverage could prevent them from doing undercover work in the future. “It’s really easy to hear different people’s viewpoints and kind of hear but not listen, and this was a moment when we’re forced to interact and take in the different viewpoints.”
The workshop was held at the Chicago History Museum, and Brock said it was nice to get out of the academy.
“Initially when we arrived here [at the History Museum], I think that we didn’t quite understand what the purpose was or what we were really doing here,” Brock said. “But as the day went on we really started to see how rich Chicago’s history is, but also how that applies to our jobs very directly as law enforcement officers.”
Lorna, another police recruit, said the life-and-death lessons frequently taught in the police academy make workshops like this one especially useful.
“You get taught how to tourniquet if you unfortunately get shot … or officers going down, getting killed in the line of duty,” Lorna said. “So doing things like this, it draws in the humanistic part, so you can still keep that human side to you.”
Organizers said more than 2,200 police recruits have gone through the acting workshop since it started in 2017.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.