Western Mass. police role-play mental health scenarios with local actors

Thirty law enforcement officers from western Massachusetts gathered in Pittsfield today for a morning of role-playing with a pair of improv comedians. The mission was to get practice dealing with mentally unbalanced citizens. 

Barb Cardillo and Frank Lafrazia have worked together as members of the Royal Berkshire Improv Troupe, as well as in Barrington Stage Company’s playwriting mentorship program for at-risk youth.  Now they’re putting improvisation skills to work, playing scenes with police officers that mimmick the unpredictable behavior of people experiencing mental illness. 

Here, after an in-character tirade about an ex-boyfriend and a nosy neighbor, the actress is pacified. 

After each scene, Major Thomas Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office discusses strategies for dealing with similar situations. He says the first reaction may be to arrest someone for disorderly conduct, something he says might clog up the court system while not addressing the underlying issues.

The goal, Grady says, is to find an option “that doesn’t necessarily result in the use of force or result in arrest. Where we may be able to direct people into treatment programs that can be more successful for them to have an outcome and not have negative encounters with law enforcement, but see them as partners in helping to get them to a process that can improve their lives.”

Cardillo says her job as an actress is to provide as natural a reaction as she can.

“You go as real as possible, you don’t hold back. And if you’ve seen these behaviors in real life then you know how to portray these so that the officers can get a really good indication of how they might be dealing with people as they go in on a situation.”

This is the fourth session like this, organized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Berkshire County.