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Can VR Change How Police Respond to Mental Health Crises?

Axon, known for its body cameras and TASER products, is branching into the emergent technology arena in the hopes it will change the dynamics between officers and those experiencing a mental health crisis.

Axon, the company that made its mark developing and selling TASERS to police departments across the country, is now getting into a new market with untapped potential for law enforcement: virtual reality.

As the virtual reality industry has begun to blossom, companies and governments alike have sought to find new ways to utilize the technology. Axon's move to capitalize on the new trend comes with a unique focus, however: mental health. 

The Chicago Police Department recently signed on to conduct a pilot of the company’s VR-based empathy training program.

The pilot will augment the department's crisis response training by allowing officers to train for interactions with people with cognitive and developmental disabilities. Using VR headsets, officers can be immersed in life-like situations involving individuals involved in a personal crisis — with the hope that it will give them a road map to de-escalation in potentially tense scenarios. 

"The goal is to take crisis intervention training out of the classroom, and into a virtual field," said Chicago PD Lt. Antoinette Ursitti, a Crisis Intervention Team program coordinator, in a press release. "We're excited to see how this new partnership with Axon can help our department not only understand civilians in crisis, but equip them to de-escalate situations verbally." 

Laura Brown, Axon's senior director of training, said in an interview with Government Technology that the hope is that AR and VR will help police better internalize training, leading to better results in the field. 

“We think about the VR training in terms of learning transfer," Brown said. "If you’re watching a video and you go try to do that thing in the real world, there may be some amount of learning transfer. But studies have shown that VR, because it’s so immersive and feels very realistic, actually affects your memory development quite differently than traditional two-dimensional media."

When VR is paired with "real, hands-on training — for weapons and for role playing of verbal de-escalation," the hope is that it will enhance traditional training to better equip officers for real-life scenarios, she said.

Brown added that many in the law enforcement field feel that giving officers the kind of tools to help them better handle incidents involving mental health should be a priority. 

A report released in 2016 showed that nearly a third to half of the victims in police-involved shootings were people with a disability of some kind, and that police have become the “default responders to mental health calls." Still, this trend was vastly under-reported by media companies, despite being common, the report claims.  

As such, pilot programs focused on integrating mental health focus and training into police departments have become more normative. Many take new approaches to police response — like the one in Minneapolis that paired mental health professionals with street cops as they respond to crisis incidents.  

The training offered to Chicago police through Axon Academy, a network of online and in-person training resources, is in this same mold. 

Brown said that, given the fairly experimental nature of both the technology and the program, a metric for the pilot's success has yet to be worked out. However, a big goal is to see officers display better verbal de-escalation practices after their VR experiences. The end goal is that this training will lead to a reduction in use-of-force incidents for affected communities, she said.

Brown added that moving forward, this technology could be deployed not just for mental health training but also in a wide array of contexts and settings for police departments. 

“AR and VR are still very different technologies, and they’re both evolving extremely rapidly, but what we’re obviously shooting for in both is full immersive quality, and the ability to impart context and realism,” she said. “We’ve had conversations about using this even for meditation and therapy for officers who suffer from post-traumatic stress.”

At the same time, the technology would also be used to train officers for more “traditional use-of-force scenarios,” allowing cops to play out and practice police responses in specific contexts and settings, in a fashion not so dissimilar from playing a video game like Call of Duty, she said.   

The technology's progress is already moving at breakneck speed, Brown said.

“Obviously in 10 years it will be amazing, but even in the next five years, I think we’re going to see quite a bit [of progress],” she said. 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.