NYPD Raises Curtain On New Sensitivity Training Tool For Recruits
The nation's largest police force is under pressure to change its ways.
That includes how New York City's police department teaches officers to interact with communities of color after recent protests against excessive force by the police.
Now the NYPD is trying out an unusual tool to train recruits: theater.
It's not every day costumed actors perform in a dark lecture hall at the New York City Police Academy.
But this was not your average night of theater, as Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pointed out while introducing the one-act play, Anne and Emmett, on Wednesday.
"Tonight is about stepping back — away from our personal prejudices, casual bias and preconceived notions," he said.
The play tells the stories of two famous teenagers: Anne Frank, a Jew who hid in an attic with her family and later died in a German concentration camp, and Emmett Till, the black 14-year-old from Chicago who left home to visit a segregated Mississippi — and didn't come back alive.
Till was killed by two white men who said the teen whistled at a white woman. An all-white jury acquitted them of Till's murder.
It's a part of American history that was news to NYPD recruit Anthony Frascatore.
"I definitely knew the story on Anne Frank," he said. "I didn't know the story on Emmett Till, though."
Neither did the other four recruits the NYPD made available for interviews. All of them were white, even though the cadets in the audience were racially diverse.
Frascatore, who is 30, said the performance taught him about different communities.
"There was an African-American man and a Jewish girl that went through the same exact thing but from completely different sides of the world," he said.
For 23-year-old Michael Palermo, that history reminded him of his responsibility as a police officer, "and how important it is that we stay level-headed throughout our training."
Palermo said Frank's and Till's experiences are the result of "governments abusing their authority and persecuting people."
Still, there's plenty of skepticism of using theater for police training among longtime critics of the NYPD.
Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, thinks it's a hard sell to police veterans.
"They mainly respond by rolling their eyes. Most cops see it as a kind of show business, a kind of public relations strategy," Gangi says.
Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says whatever the strategy, the NYPD should also focus on retraining its supervisors — and not just their cadets.
"The people who are in the middle that actually deploy folks, unless that culture changes we're going to have a very hard time seeing how the police department has changed," Warren says.
In the meantime, about 800 more of New York City's police recruits are seeing the play before they graduate from the academy in December.
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