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For the area’s criminal-justice actors, playing cops and robbers is more than just a game.

In a tiny, windowless room in Ashburn, Va., some women are talking about how to confuse the police.

“I have an invisible dog named Henry VIII, and I’m Anne Boleyn,” says Anne Lynn, a short 42-year-old wearing a pink T-shirt that says, “Speed World Street Nationals” and matching pink shorts and socks. “And Henry VIII does my braids for me, and I threaten to hang myself with the invisible leash.”

“My stuffed frog was talking to me,” says one of her roommates, silver-haired Cindy Lavezzo. “I kept telling the officer that I couldn’t leave, because they were coming.”

“Both our planet people and the CIA!” chimes in Judie Bell-Dorman, her eyes scary-wide. “And besides, I told him, ‘You see the contrails up in the sky? They’re watching! And you just blew it!’”

Being crazy—right down to their aluminum-foil hats—is just one thing these people do for money. They’re a few of the role-players for D.C.-area academies that train recruits for the FBI, the Secret Service, and police and sheriff’s departments from Middleburg, Va., to Upper Marlboro, Md. This morning, they’re at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy (NVCJTA), a shiny, sprawling facility where the instructors are buff and the recruits are nervous.

During each six-month training course for potential police officers and sheriff’s deputies at the NVCJTA, the players impersonate everyone from drunks to bank robbers, from felons in getaway cars to Alzheimer’s patients wandering in the mall. The recent scenario (called a “practical”) the women are discussing—”Citizen on Private Property”—tested how well recruits recognize when someone poses a danger to him- or herself. (“My recruits didn’t come get me until I climbed a railing,” Bell-Dorman says.) Today’s practicals include “Metal Detector” and “Processing Arrestees.” “Tomorrow at Fairfax, we do rapes,” says Lavezzo.

In walks Frank Giarrizzi, an academy instructor on assignment from the Metro Transit Police. “Why don’t you come get arrested?” he asks the group casually.

Lavezzo ponders the question for a moment, chin up. “Yeah,” she says finally, “I’ll get arrested.”

Even before Sept. 11, dozens of role-players were working in practicals at the area’s half-dozen or so criminal justice academies. After the terrorist attacks, though, demand for their services soared. “Our business has tripled since 9/11, because there’s so much premium placed on role-playing,” says Rick Tessada, president of Springfield, Va.’s, Tessada and Associates Inc., which provides approximately 120 role-players for the FBI; the DEA; the Secret Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and the U.S. Capitol Police.

The FBI, which used to graduate 300 agents a year, is graduating 980 in 2002, and plans to graduate about 1,000 in 2003. “So we’re working five days a week, 12 hours a day, plus weekends,” Tessada says. Many states also mandate that police and sheriff’s department recruits go through practicals to graduate, and there just aren’t enough off-duty police to fill the roles.

Pay for role-playing averages about $10 an hour, and the work is sporadic, varying according to the academies’ schedules. About half of the role-players at Ashburn for today’s practicals are members of the Screen Actors Guild or have acted semiprofessionally—or want to. Lynn has been an extra in 20-some Hollywood films, including 12 Monkeys and Murder at 1600. Ed Mercier, a 76-year-old from Chevy Chase, Md., has done TV pilots, community theater, and voice-overs for classified military films; he’s also just played the lead in an independent film called Soft for Digging. And everybody, it seems, has been an extra for the Baltimore-based TV drama Homicide: Life on the Street.

“We want someone who can not only follow our scenario but improvise enough to make it realistic,” says Cara Hannan, a curriculum specialist at the NVCJTA. “They should be occasionally confrontational, so students can use the resources they’ve been taught. We also leave a lot of the emotions up to the role-player. For example, while some rape victims are hysterical, others are withdrawn.”

The players like the artistic license. “When I’m playing a panhandler,” says 70-year-old Lincoln, Va., resident James Maranville, “I bring a guitar and case and say things like, ‘Goddamned Pakistani restaurant, you tell me an American GI has gotta move?’” Lynn says that the Capitol Police sometimes tip off role-players about each recruit’s weaknesses. “They tell you, ‘Do something to tweak this person,’” she says. Lavezzo has even nabbed recruits’ guns when they failed to guard them.

“Role-playing,” she says, “is almost like a community service. God knows we don’t do it for the money. These young people are going out there to be police officers, and this may be their only chance to make a mistake.”

“What did you ask me?” Bell-Dorman yells at an NVCJTA recruit standing behind a counter. Seated with her hands behind her back as if handcuffed, she’s playing “Tracy Wilson,” charged with assault by thrown pizza. And she’s in no mood for personal questions.

“Your weight, ma’am,” says the recruit, name tag drooping on his crisp blue uniform, his voice barely making it across the room.

“I don’t even tell my mother how much I weigh,” spits Bell-Dorman. “So just make somethin’ up. And wipe that grin off your face!”

A 60-year-old with 30 years of experience as a police officer and criminologist in Ohio, California, and Virginia, Bell-Dorman remembers when academies didn’t have role-players or practicals. “Those were the Dark Ages,” she says. “You just went through the academy and learned on the job. But you can only listen in a classroom for so long. If you actually participate in a scenario, the correct way to handle it is more likely to embed itself in you.”

Bell-Dorman, Giarrizzi, and the recruit are in a spartan room with a box of latex gloves and a small black wall cabinet labeled “RESTRAINTS.” The academies go to some lengths to create authentic training environments: The NVCJTA has cell blocks, a fake bar and apartment, and a huge padded room for learning defensive tactics. The Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy has an indoor minimall with a deli, a travel agency, and a NationsBank. Insiders call it “Practical Plaza.”

Down the hall, Lynn is playing an agitated woman going through a metal detector outside the trial of a man accused of killing her brother. Instructor Eric Cembrook warns his students that Lynn’s family has made death threats against the defendant. So when Lynn trips the detector, the recruits pass a handheld wand over her with a painstaking slowness that makes airport security look efficient. One recruit manages to coax a chirpy alarm from every part of Lynn’s body except the pocket in which she’s “forgotten” her keys.

“OK, ma’am, you have a great day,” he says sunnily after finding the bulging key ring, clearly having forgotten about the trial.

The NVCJTA gives its recruits four attempts to pass each practical, with extensive reinstruction after the third attempt. “These recruits don’t know squat unless they’ve worked elsewhere,” says Bell-Dorman. “Even if we know what’s supposed to happen, we can’t guide them. And it’s so hard not to. But if they’re not going to do it [correctly], you don’t want them on the street.”

At both the NVCJTA and Fairfax, role-players help on all the practicals except defensive training and shoot/don’t shoot scenarios (in which mothers with babies and bad guys pop out at recruits, who have a split second to decide whether to fire). The FBI, says Lynn, allows the players to use paintball guns. “They do ‘Building Search,’ where you hide in a closet or behind the dresser, and they come in the room and you shoot at them,” she says. “[The recruits] just jump out of their skin sometimes.”

“DUI” is another favorite. “It’s awesome,” says Bell-Dorman, who after her processing is now waiting in a “jail” with about 100 Kevlar vests piled against a wall. “You can act drunk. At Prince William’s [academy], you can swish Listerine and then take a Breathalyzer. That’s where the acting really comes out.”

Giarrizzi appears at the door. “You ready to be released?” he barks.

“How’d he do?” Bell-Dorman asks about the recruit.

“He’s as green as this sheet,” replies Giarrizzi, holding up a piece of paper the color of Mr. Yuck.

“Some of them are so young,” Bell-Dorman says later. “In the domestic [-assault] scenarios, Jim [Maranville] will put on a big makeup bruise, and the recruits all still look at me and ask if I’m OK.”

Suddenly, seeing a visitor’s quizzical look, she slips back into character. “I hit him with a frying pan!” Bell-Dorman yells. “Well, he didn’t cook dinner! I work two shifts and he doesn’t do shit!”

At 6:30 the next morning, the role-players assemble in a bright briefing room at the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy and tell shop jokes: “Where’s Jim?” “He didn’t feel like being sexually assaulted today.” They also anxiously exchange information about the new film shoots coming to town. Everyone wants to be an extra for Chris Rock’s upcoming Head of State.

Today’s practicals are “Sexual-Assault Interview” and “Person With Alzheimer’s.” The assault interviews are considered so sensitive that the academy doesn’t even videotape them. “I did six scenes, 45 minutes each,” Lavezzo says later, “and by the fourth I had to stop and take some Tylenol. It’s one of the most important we do and one of the hardest. But at the end of the day I did some Alzheimer’s, and it was fun.”

The work can be repetitive, though, and some role-players would love to move on. Lynn, who drives a ’75 Dodge Dart with a vanity license plate that reads, “QME2ACT,” desperately wants the speaking part she’s never been offered. Her six years of practicals haven’t yet advanced her acting career, but they inspired her to apply for jobs with area police forces. “I started to see how police officers were just regular people,” she says. “Something about it grabbed me.” But her applications were turned down, and she’s now looking into becoming an animal-control officer.

Others are happy right where they are. “We were pulling a truck out of a ditch once, and this Purcellville lady cop came out of nowhere pointing a finger at me,” says Maranville, “and I thought I was in trouble. And she ran up and said, ‘You were that damn falling-down drunk in the academy!’ before giving me a quick hug.”

“I never got into a play in school and all, but now I’m fairly adept at it,” he adds. “I have no aspirations to go big time, but this is a riot. I hope I can do it ’til the day I die.” CP