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The latest tool to help police develop empathy for the public: Virtual reality headsets

Experts hope Oculus headsets will teach officers to ask questions before drawing their weapons.

(Photo courtesy of Axon)
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When dealing with someone experiencing a mental-health crisis, one of the most valuable tools a police officer has is empathy.

Being able to empathize with the victim, experts say, is often the first step in de-escalating a crisis before it turns even more chaotic or dangerous. And yet, in a high-pressure situation, when a first responder is confronting someone in the throes of a suicidal or psychotic episode, empathetic feelings are often replaced by another feeling entirely: paralyzing fear.

“They’re showing up to various scenes with an adrenaline spike,” Laura Brown, senior director of training at Axon, a technology company best known for making Tasers that has also become the country’s biggest seller of police body cameras. “The innate fear reaction is the most important thing police need to learn how to regulate during situations involving people suffering from mental-health issues.”

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Axon doesn’t necessarily want officers to use the company’s Tasers each time the opportunity arises. Instead, company officials say, they want to help law enforcement officers become more familiar with using empathy to resolve emergency situations when confusion is high and verbal commands lose their effectiveness. To aid in that goal, Axon has released “empathy development training” based in virtual reality.

In recent months, the company has unveiled similar virtual training — using Oculus Go virtual reality headsets — to prepare first responders for scenarios involving people with autism and schizophrenia. The latest virtual training is focused on suicide prevention.

“The ability to tell the difference between someone who’s acting in an unusual way that may be due to their autism versus someone who could be a risk to you can be a really fine line,” David Kearon of the advocacy group Autism Speaks told the Associated Press in May. “When you’re trying to make that judgment very quickly, that’s where we see mistakes made.”

Axon is the latest major organization to harness virtual reality as a means of preparing people for operating in complex, high-pressure environments where there is little room for error. Long popular with gamers drawn to immersive fantasy worlds, VR headsets are increasingly being used by scientists, doctors and the military.

Last year, biology students at Arizona State University were given the option of purchasing $400 Lenovo Mirage Solo headsets to complete a biology course that incorporated simulated lab environments.

More recently, Walmart — the nation’s largest employer — has begun replacing paper-based assessments with tests based in virtual simulations. Using a $250 Oculus Go virtual reality headset, employees have their wits and instincts tested inside a simulated environment, allowing managers to see how well they know the store’s departments and how they react in everyday scenarios, according to the company.

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In its use of empathy training scenarios, in particular, law enforcement is beginning to view virtual reality as a useful tool. In the future, experts say, virtual reality could be used to review body-camera evidence, recruit new officers, conduct weapons training or be used as a therapy tool for officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Using virtual reality to enhance empathy and awareness is not entirely new. The Weather Channel has used immersive mixed-reality technology to impress upon people the importance of evacuating ahead of a hurricane, using terrifying imagery to deliver lifesaving information they might otherwise ignore.

At the Tribeca Film Festival last year, filmmakers debuted “1000 Cut Journey,” a virtual reality experience in which the viewer takes on the role of Michael Sterling, a black man who experiences racism at different points in his life. (It was created in concert with Courtney Cogburn, a Columbia University researcher who oversaw the social science aspects.)

To develop their suicide prevention training, Axon turned to clinicians, behavioral analysts and law enforcement experts to design an immersive experience that places trainees in a realistic scenario involving a mental-health crisis, the company said. In addition to having users hear the thoughts of a suicidal individual, the scenario allows them to make critical decisions about how to engage with the simulation, such as reassuring the troubled subject, asking about their history or keeping the individual talking.

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When mental-health crises go awry, Brown said, it’s often because officers are overwhelmed by fear and unable to control their biometric response or process information effectively.

“If you’ve ever had to go onstage and give a speech in front of a big crowd and been overwhelmed by the moment, it’s kind of like that,” she said.

Out of the 992 deadly police shootings in the United States in 2018, Axon notes, 213 of those fatally shot suffered from a mental illness.

Fatal Force, a multiyear Washington Post study cataloguing every fatal shooting nationwide by a police officer since 2016, reveals that at least 127 people suffering from mental illness have been fatally shot by police in 2019, or about 19 percent of all those fatally shot by police this year.

Even when stun guns are deployed effectively, the weapons have been linked to numerous deaths, particularly when the devices are used to subdue the mentally ill.

Ideally, an officer who is a member of a crisis intervention team (CIT) — a program in which officers are trained to identify and de-escalate mental-health crisis — would respond to situations like the one outlined in Axon’s virtual training. But often, Brown said, officers may not suspect they’re dealing with a mental-health crisis until they’re at the scene. A suicidal person standing on the edge of a building — the scenario presented in the Axon’s virtual training scenario — for example, might initially be reported as a trespassing call.

In the virtual scenario, Brown said, photo realism and being able to hear the pain in someone’s voice helps trainees develop empathy.

“Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling, and that means really understanding the context that they’re in from a 360-degree perspective,” Brown said. “We’re asking them to empathize with states of being that are some of the most stigmatized and judged in our culture.”


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