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Bucks County, Pa., Taps Virtual Reality for Crisis Training

Crisis intervention training in Bucks County, Pa., now utilizes virtual reality to give police officers a more realistic view into interactions that involve individuals with mental health challenges.

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Police officers participate in virtual reality training scenarios.
Photo courtesy of the Bucks County Courier Times.
Virtual reality training simulations are beginning to spread in Bucks County, Pa.

In November, the county introduced virtual reality training to its Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). Now, other departments, like the Bedminster Township Police Department (BTPD), have requested additional VR training to improve their crisis response.

The 40-hour CIT program certification course, held at the Bucks County Public Safety Training Center, aims to help police officers understand mental health crises that citizens may experience. Sessions are led by the Bucks CIT Task Force, which includes entities like the Lenape Valley Foundation (LVF), the Bucks County Office of Behavioral Health and Developmental Programs and NAMI Bucks County.

Participants use HTC Vive VR goggles, with software developed by Axon, to participate in scenario-based learning to better respond to particular crises, explained Nicole Wolf, director of education and training for LVF.

The scenarios involve working with people with autism, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and veteran PTSI and dealing with instances of domestic violence and attempted suicide.

Most of the virtual scenarios begin with the officer viewing a scene from the perspective of a person in crisis, which gives the officer insight into the situation before the training switches to the officer's perspective.

“It will alter the scene as if you are the patient, and you have the unique experience of it through their eyes,” BTPD Police Chief Matt Phelan said. “That’s really hard to replicate.”

When the perspective shifts, the officer approaches the person in crisis to gain additional information before making a choice. For example, an officer may offer support, investigate further or clear the call. The scenario will play out differently based on the decision. At the end, officers are allowed to exit or retry.

Wolf said officers are encouraged to go back and complete the module again with a different decision to see how it plays out before debriefing the situation and talking about what happened.

At the 2021 session, members of various police departments attended the VR training. The VR component complemented the traditional education methods used in this course, one of which involves being exposed to firsthand perspectives, Wolf explained. People living with particular conditions come into the training environment to share their experiences with police officers. This method will remain part of the training, even with the addition of VR.

“Officers every training have said that was the most meaningful part of the training, hearing from someone who’s not in crisis mode [talk] about what it was like to be in crisis mode and what it’s like to live with this,” Wolf said. “And so this is sort of taking that up a notch.”

At the end of the November training, police chiefs were invited to the graduation ceremony, Wolf said. The chiefs were offered the opportunity to demo the VR headsets after graduation, and several have since reached out for additional training for their departments, including BTPD, which requested an additional training that eventually took place in February.

According to Phelan, 15 officers participated in this follow-up training. The goal, he said, is for all officers to complete the 40-hour training session; requesting additional departmental trainings can help fill the gaps until that goal is accomplished.

As Phelan explained, VR is an effective tool for preparing officers for de-escalation scenarios because it allows officers to be exposed to specific issues in a safe training setting.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.