Deepali Dhruve

Deepali Dhruve, pictured in front of the Starkville Police Department
Photo by Grace Cockrell

“I have always been interested in working at the intersection of law and psychology,” said Deepali Dhruve, who moved with her family from India to Irvine, California, when she was eight years old.

After working in public safety at the Irvine Police Department while pursuing her post-baccalaureate certificate in psychological science, Dhruve was exposed to the challenges law enforcement officers experience.

Dhruve, who came to Mississippi State in 2019 for her master’s degree in psychology, said an unusual pairing of law, psychology and theater meshed this year to become a “formative part” of her doctoral experience. She also has earned community accolades for the collaboration she created between Theatre MSU and the Starkville Police Department to help role-play de-escalation techniques.

“Research with law enforcement stood out as a critical area following the social justice protests in 2020. Given the numerous extant de-escalation trainings in the literature, it was clear that there is a gap between these trainings and the application of the skills. This was not surprising given that less than half of these trainings did not utilize behavioral assessments to measure the efficacy of the trainings. There was a lot of blame being cast during this time, and not as much effort to seek solutions to the problem,” said Dhruve, who came to MSU in 2021 for her master’s degree in psychology.

“I really wanted to be a part of the solution to the problem.”

Dhruve developed a program to use live-actor role-plays, similar to what the medical community has used for decades to train and assess medical students.

After a year of groundwork and help from her academic mentor Associate Professor Michael R. Nadorff, Dhruve met with Starkville police personnel to discuss current training needs and the challenges they experience when addressing mental health calls.

Then she met with Theatre MSU faculty member Tonya Hays to discuss hiring her students as actors and scriptwriters for the various scenarios.

“Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard was generous with his time in helping communicate the department’s needs and providing feedback on the scenario drafts, and selecting the best ones for use in the project,” Dhruve said. “I immersed myself in understanding the challenges experienced by SPD officers by attending SPD staff meetings twice a week, going on ride-alongs, and meeting with Chief Ballard.”

After Dhruve hired student actors, using funds provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Lakeside Student Living Apartments partnered with the group by providing a model unit to conduct the role-plays.

Dhruve’s research, still in the quantifying results stage, will be used to help police understand how different scenarios might unfold and will provide practical application for steps to improve communication.

Dhruve—this year’s College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Graduate Student at the Doctoral Level—said she hopes her “outside-of-the-box” research inspires others to collaborate with interdisciplinary teams and hear differing perspectives, hopefully inspiring creative solutions for problems.

“I have always wanted to engage in research meaningful to local communities. I was informed by the faculty that I might have the chance to do that in Starkville because of the close-knit relationship between the university and the town. I am glad to say they were right.”