BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – For almost three years, Shea’s Performing Arts Center and the Buffalo Police Department have been teaming up to provide new police cadets with workshops on body language.

Now, the Body Language Competency Training for New Recruits program is in the spotlight.

The program is an honoree of the 2021 Spark Awards for Arts Integration and was featured in the March issue of the New York State Chief’s Chronicle.

It was developed between both Shea’s and the Buffalo Police Department out of “a need we identified and out of our experiences and knowledge together,” Thembi Duncan, director of arts engagement and education at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, said.

Duncan said that she is thrilled about the attention the program is getting.

“Ultimately, we want to do this with a ton of other law enforcement agencies, and we want to inspire artists and law enforcement agencies to work together to contribute to solutions,” Duncan said. “It’s about being action-oriented- we can all have opinions on how things go, but who’s taking action? We’re taking action.”

PHOTO/Kathleen Washington

The program got started after Duncan approached Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood with ideas on how to improve communication between the police and the public. She had already been doing body language training for professionals in the area.

“It started off with me watching recordings of community town halls, with the police and community listening to the things that were important to the community, and I felt like there was a way that we could engage from the arts education perspective to kind of bridge gaps that I was seeing in communication,” Duncan said.

Now retired, BPD Capt. Steve Nichols oversaw neighborhood engagement at the time.

“When we sat down and talked about this program, it made a lot of sense,” Capt. Nichols said. “I’ve gone to a lot of committee meetings, and at one of the meetings, someone actually said to me ‘relax, don’t be so stiff.’ You don’t realize it, but you put on that uniform and you’re a police officer- this helps us tone it down a bit.

“People also perceive you differently when you’re wearing that uniform, and that’s some of what we’re trying to get away from,” he added.

The workshops have been part of Buffalo Police’s curriculum for new cadets since May 2019. They’re offered by Shea’s and taught by Duncan at no expense to the department or the city taxpayer, Capt. Nichols added.

They start off with a writing exercise, and include the type of theater exercises that actors learn, Duncan explained.

“I treat it as a scene, and I say you are a character and you have a costume, that’s your uniform,” Duncan said. “We kind of work to separate the self from the role you play. It’s very interactive- we do a lot of roleplay, we engage the officers in a way that’s not just me standing at the head of the classroom talking to them.”

To better understand the experience that Buffalo Police officers have, Duncan suited up in a ballistic vest and went for multiple ride-alongs with police.

“New officers see it as, she’s been out there,” Capt. Nichols explained. “She knows what we’re doing- she went a number of times and saw a lot of different things, we didn’t hide anything from her.”

Capt. Tommy Champion is BPD’s captain of community policing.

“Policing is all about communication,” Capt. Champion said. “I think people forget that a very important rudimentary part of being a police officer is being able to communicate with one another with each other and with civilians every day- we’ve got to be able to project the right message when we’re talking to folks, and that’s more important today than it’s ever been.”

With multiple instances of fatal police violence occurring on a national basis, it’s more important than ever to teach body language skills to new officers. 

“I want people to know each one of us can find a way to make a difference,” Duncan said. “A lot of people are surprised that Shea’s and the police department are partnering up- everybody can contribute to making our community better, you just have to do it in your own way.”