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Improviser finds purpose in Chicago police mental health crisis trainings

In 2004, the Chicago Police Department implemented a voluntary training program to deal with mental health emergencies.

Today, Chicago has the largest crisis intervention training program in the world, according to Alexa James, Executive Director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)-Chicago.

Clark Weber is an essential part of the crisis intervention training. In this week’s StoryCorps, Weber describes how he found himself in the greatest role of his life.

After moving to Chicago in the late 1980s, Weber studied improv at Second City. He loves acting, whether it’s theater, television or film. But Weber struggled with depression and suicidal tendencies too. He was diagnosed as bipolar and spent four-and-a-half weeks at a state mental hospital before moving into a group home with Thresholds, a non-profit that assists people with mental illness.

“When I came to Thresholds,” Weber said, “they had a theater arts program – which now unfortunately is defunct - and I was told that we have this opportunity to role play with Chicago police to make them aware and see what a real mental health crisis is like.”

Weber soon found himself in the middle of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training program, roleplaying as a person in distress.

The role-playing can be intense, Weber said. “Officers have play weapons and a real Taser, which is non-functioning. And instead of using force, they try to talk us down. And we have total freedom to insult the police officers. We have total freedom to swear at them, to make it as real as possible.”

If officers feel “that the Taser needs to be used, they’ll just point it towards us and say, ‘Taser. Taser. Taser.’ So we’re fake-Tased and then we discuss why the officer feels he or she had to do that.”

Pastor Fred Kinsey is a member of ONE Northside, a group that this past year helped get police to increase the number of officers able to go through CIT training. “If you have tools to recognize people in crisis, to know what kinds of medications people are on, that helps,” Kinsey said. Chicago Police recently doubled the number of officers who are able to receive CIT training each year, Kinsey said. But that doubling of officers - from 200 to 400 officers each year – is small compared to the number of officers who don’t take the training. “I’d like to see the majority, if not all, officers trained,” Kinsey said. The biggest impediment to expanding the training program, he said, is not so much financial, but the time costs of taking officers off the street.

For Clark Weber, the experience has been transformative. “I’m not saying every day’s gonna be a good day, or every day’s gonna be a great day. Being bipolar I do have my ups and downs. But I run into officers that I’ve helped train or they’ve been in a class and they’ve watched the videos. And I’ve had officers come up to me and said, ‘Because of you I helped save this person’s life. Or I helped this person get the treatment that they needed.’”

“It’s very empowering,” Weber says. “For the first time in my life, I feel I have a purpose. I have a place in the world.”

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