man wearing VR headset (Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com)

Can VR prepare police for encounters with people with mental disabilities?

A training tool based in virtual reality (VR) aims to help police better understand what people with certain mental disabilities experience during an encounter with officers.

Axon began offering VR Empathy about 18 months ago to put officers in the shoes of people with autism, schizophrenia or suicidal intentions with the idea of training officers to better manage incidents without the use of force.

“It’s to equip officers with the tools they need to de-escalate situations within the field,” said Jeff Kunins, Axon’s chief product officer and executive vice president for software. “We see this as filling a gap. So many traditional or alternative training products focus on tactical and use-of-force situations, and we see a need to provide more tools and training for officers on how to do the opposite of that and to avoid use-of-force situations in the first place.”

Using Oculus Go VR headsets, officers first enter the Axon Academy Training Room, akin to a lobby where they can choose which of the three scenarios to experience. The trainee then watches a 3D scene unfold from the perspective of the person with a mental disability. For instance, it might put the trainee in the shoes of a person with autism who experienced an incident inside a convenience store and is now unnerved by sirens, flashing lights and police in the parking lot.

Next, the trainee re-enters the scenario with the responding officer’s point of view. “Throughout that three- to five-minute scene, they have a ‘choose your own adventure’-style set of decisions they’re asked to make  --  very simple but specific choices  --  as they see the person who they just were a few moments ago,” Kunins said.

The training is available to law enforcement organizations either on its own or as part of a bundle with Axon’s other solutions. Currently, 500 agencies use it as part of their contracts with the company, and another 50 are doing trials.

The training tool fits into Axon’s renewed commitment to reducing racism and use of excessive force at police departments, which company CEO Rick Smith announced June 1. As part of that initiative, Kunins said Axon will add more training modules to VR Empathy, although exactly what those will look like is not yet publicly available.

“You can imagine any number of ones that might be helpful, including how officers might step in when another officer is acting inappropriately or displaying use of force unnecessarily,” he said.

VR Empathy is also part of the company’s mission to promote transparency in police operations. Axon’s first product – and namesake – Taser aimed to give officers a non-fatal or -injurious ways to subdue suspects. Since its founding in 1991, the company has added other tools to its solutions set, including body-worn cameras and technology for redacting, auditing and sharing video from them.

For instance, Axon Performance can provide statistics and reporting to an individual squad to review its compliance with regulations, such as how often that team responded to a call for service but had no body camera footage. It also helps with random auditing, and the company is working to enhance those analytics through artificial intelligence-based features such as transcription and flagging when an officers uses profanity, raises their voice or activates their Taser.

Other tools that promote transparency include signal technologically that automatically turns body-worn cameras on if they are off when an officer unholsters a Taser or firearm. Axon is beta testing a tool that will turn cameras on when it detects gunshots.

Kunins also pointed to Axon Standards, its data management tool, as a solution that supports a national use-of-force database. Current events prompted President Donald Trump to sign last month an executive order calling for such a database and threaten to withhold federal funds for departments that don’t submit data.

“The Attorney General shall create a database to coordinate the sharing of information between and among Federal, State, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies concerning instances of excessive use of force related to law enforcement matters, accounting for applicable privacy and due process rights,” the order states.

The FBI launched the voluntary National Use-of-Force Data Collection project last year, but only about 40% of police agencies submitted 2019 data.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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