Marin County, Calif., Deputies to Use Axon VR Training System

The new training aid is part of a $1.48 million, five-year contract between the Sheriff's Office and Axon Enterprises Inc., which supplies the agency with body-worn cameras and cloud video storage software.

The Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset on a white background
The Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset.
Shutterstock/Boumen Japet
(TNS) — The Marin County Sheriff's Office is using virtual reality to train deputies on de-escalation techniques and mental health emergency response.

"We want any tool that's going to help us be better," Marin County Sheriff Bob Doyle said. "I think it's important for us to provide training to our deputies so that they're better prepared to handle different situations as they arise."
 
The new training aid is part of the department's $1.48 million, five-year contract with Axon Enterprises Inc., which supplies the agency with Taser stun guns and body-worn cameras, as well as related software and cloud video storage. This is the sheriff's office latest step into the virtual reality space. Already, deputies and new recruits undergo a use-of-force simulator, another tool aimed at de-escalating conflicts. That simulator focuses on scenarios such as traffic stops, building alarms and domestic abuse calls. This one is different.
 
The deputy uses an Oculus virtual reality headset preloaded with several scenarios that include emergencies involving people with conditions ranging from schizophrenia, autism, suicidal ideation, dementia and hearing impairments, according to Axon. Deputies are put in the position of the officer and then also run through the same simulation from the viewpoint of the civilian.
 
Sheriff's Sgt. Bradley Kashack, field training officer for the sheriff's office, said the training aims to provide perspective on the civilian's emotions and thought process to help deputies understand why it might be difficult for them to effectively communicate in the high-stress situation. After running through the scenario, deputies talk to the trainer about what they observed and what could have been done better, Kashack said.
 
"We understand that this is a VR headset and that real-life situations may be different," Kashack said. "But what this does is it creates talking points for us to try to get better as a whole department and as each individual deputy." Corrine Clark, spokeswoman for Axon, said the company has collaborated with experts in crisis intervention and behavioral analysts to develop what's called empathy development training in virtual reality.
 
"Police officers are often the first point of contact for someone in a crisis," Clark said. "Through VR training we can prepare them to better recognize why someone might be acting a certain way and de-escalate accordingly." "By using Axon's VR training modules as a complement to existing training, officers will be better prepared to handle difficult, high-stakes situations involving society's most vulnerable populations," Clark said.
 
About 20 deputies have been trained in the virtual reality program so far. It won't be a required training, but it will be included as part of the agency's crisis intervention training with the county's behavioral health branch of the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services.
Participants will partake in a training program on crisis intervention that is offered twice a year.
Deputy Justin Swift, president of the Marin County Deputy Sheriff's Association, said he hasn't yet gone through the virtual reality training.
 
However, he said, "any training we can get for de-escalation is a good thing. In real life, any time we can de-escalate a situation and if we don't have to use force, that's a positive step." The 911 dispatch center receives approximately 155,000 calls for service annually. Approximately 1,500 of those involve mental health emergencies, according to the agency.
 
Since 2003, 574 deputies have completed the crisis intervention training with the behavioral health staff, said Dr. Jei Africa, director of the division. In that training, deputies learn to recognize mental health emergencies and call on the county's mobile crisis team for psychiatric crisis intervention. The team responded to 1,909 service calls between September 2019 and September 2020.
"We've have a great partnership with the sheriff's office," Africa said.
 
Of the virtual reality training, Africa said, "People across the nation are asking law enforcers to get more training, and here in Marin we're seeing that. I think it's a great idea." "Learning to be more sensitive to the folks who are unwell is a great opportunity," Africa said. "It prevents situations that can cause public safety issues, and it helps people who have behavioral health conditions to get treatment and not incarcerated."
 
©2021 The Marin Independent Journal, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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