On a recent morning in New York City, 40 seasoned police officers in a four-day training program at the city’s new police academy listened to Detective James Shanahan, a 34-year-veteran with the wit of a stand-up comic and a penchant for Eastern Philosophy, reports WYNC radio. “Throw away your ego,” he told the group. “It’s very easy to be seduced into thinking that you are more than you are. This job is a very ripe, fertile place for us to become more than we are. I know this because its happened to me.” The officers patrol the streets of Harlem, where calls about an emotionally disturbed person are frequent, and where the city plans to use what are called drop-off centers. These are places an officer can take the mentally ill instead of booking them for a minor offense.
New York police handle such cases more than 300 times a day. They are both routine and unpredictable. In the worst cases, someone gets injured or dies. The training is meant to build empathy and compassion, and teach officers how to stay calm. Shanahan sprinkles his lectures with stories about the Japanese martial arts instructor who taught him how to detach emotionally and have a clear, unbiased, flexible mind. The understands that these officers did not sign up to be social workers, so he tries to deflect any skepticism in the room. “This is not lets hold hands and sing kumbaya. This isn’t hug a thug 101,” he says. “This is about dealing with people. It is not about us becoming ineffectual.” The officers receive some basic tips. They are told to keep their voices low, use open handed gestures, ask open ended questions to gather as much information as possible and build a personal connection. Then they practice. Actors play people in crisis and a psychologist stands by to identify what disorders are being portrayed. Shanahan directs the scenes.