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Axon to Add Police Intervention Scenarios to VR Training

At a virtual conference on Wednesday, the police-tech company promised new products and investment in virtual reality to train officers to deal with difficult people in the field — including each other.

by / August 27, 2020
Axon’s autism empathy VR training allows trainees to be fully immersed in the scene from both the officer’s perspective, and the perspective of the person in crisis. Courtesy Axon via promotional video

At its fifth annual Axon Accelerate conference this week, the police tech company Axon, formerly known as Taser, unveiled three new products into a political environment they know is encouraging scrutiny on their market. Two of the products, an AI-powered transcription tool for video recordings and an updated operations and dispatch platform, might have been released any other time. But the third, if not a direct answer to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, is at least pointed at one of the variables in that incident: a series of virtual-reality trainings, including one to teach officers how to police each other in the field.

Axon CEO and co-founder Rick Smith told Government Technology that the company has been making virtual reality training software for more than a year, but primarily limited to what he called “empathy training.” In these scenarios, trainees put on virtual reality headset — Axon doesn’t make the hardware — and experience a scenario twice, from the point of view of an officer and then as the member of the public being detained. To date, the training has involved three scenarios: one on dealing with people who have schizophrenia, one for people with autism and one with suicidal subjects.

These VR trainings are one aspect of the company’s Taser certification program, but Smith said Axon is now investing more heavily in VR and plans to release “designated, more full-featured and broader product offerings.” According to a news release, the first two modules will be about peer intervention and training officers to know when and how to step in if a colleague uses excessive force or acts inappropriately. The news release said this will involve de-escalation techniques and be available for practice at any time, as opposed to being a one-time training session.

Smith likened the peer intervention module to the circumstances of Floyd’s death, in which a 19-year veteran of the agency was flanked by new hires who didn’t challenge him when he crossed a line.

“Just conventionally, that’s a difficult situation in law enforcement, because those rookies are trained to respect the hierarchy of authority,” he said. “I think there are general points of agreement that more intensive training needs to be given to rookies on when it’s appropriate to intervene and challenge what is normally a hierarchical organization.”

The news release said four other VR trainings are in the works, including "Officer PTSI," to help officers deal with their own traumas they encounter in the field; "Deafness," to help officers identify if a person has hearing loss and communicate more effectively them with them; "Community PTSI," for identifying and dealing with a person who has post-traumatic stress injury; and "Alzheimer’s/Dementia," for assisting people who might have those conditions.

Axon spokeswoman Carley Partridge said in an email that Axon developed the VR trainings with input from at least 11 outside groups or individuals including nonprofits, academics, behavior analysts and law enforcement: the peer intervention program EPIC (Ethical Policing is Courageous), Brain Health & Research Institute, National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nonprofit Badge of Life, clinicians, El Paso County Behavior Health Programs, Los Angeles Police Department, Seattle Police Department and Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.

On the question of whether the scenarios will be customizable, Smith said it’s more likely that Axon will invite police agencies to their production studio to weigh in on VR simulations than that they’ll give agencies the ability to create their own.

“We try to approach it first as, what are the universal truths in training that we can help them with in such a way that it can then be useful for the broader law enforcement community?” he said. “Law enforcement in the U.S. is highly decentralized, so sometimes you get a lot of fragmentation in how officers are trained, depending on where they are in the country. So there’s some advantage to doing this is in a little more centralized way, which might help with giving more consistency with the types of training being deployed.”

Partridge said the peer intervention VR modules will be available within the next few months, with the other four scheduled for release in the first half of 2021.

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Andrew Westrope Staff Writer

Andrew Westrope is a staff writer for Government Technology. Before that, he was a reporter and editor at community newspapers for seven years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.


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