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VR is training cops to empathize with the people they might kill

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17.06.2019

It’s nighttime, and I’m on the front lawn, muttering to myself and pacing back and forth, something metal in hand. I’m yelling at the voices in my head and batting away my pleading mother when the police pull up. “Who sent you!” I shout at a cop. “Kyle, Kyle,” he says. “Put down the screwdriver, Kyle!”

Before the police can descend on me, everything fades to black, and seconds later, I’ve switched vantage points. Now I’m the cop, stepping out of the cruiser as the radio crackles with a report of a schizophrenic man off his meds. I see the guy talking to himself on the front lawn, and ask my partner to turn down the radio. As I approach Kyle, time slows down, and I am faced with a choice: engage in conversation or demand he drop the screwdriver and see where that goes.

It’s actually daytime, and I am in a glass-walled room in Seattle, wearing big headphones and an Oculus Go. Axon, the company that makes Taser weapons and body-worn cameras, invited me to their spaceship-like offices to share the newest piece of equipment they’re offering police agencies: Facebook’s virtual reality headset loaded with a pair of short, custom-made interactive films. The idea, Axon says, is to put officers in the shoes of someone experiencing an emotional crisis during a police encounter, and then let them practice how they might respond. The hope is, essentially, to train officers when not to use a Taser, or any weapon for that matter.

[Photo: courtesy of Axon]“Either in an arrest situation or just having a cop stop you and talk to you when you’re going through a psychotic episode can be very different from what the cops are expecting that person may be going through,” says Laura Brown, the company’s senior director of training strategy.

The country’s steady decline in public funding for mental health services has made police the de facto first responders to people experiencing emotional crises, and those encounters are disproportionately likely to turn fatal: a 2016 report found that almost half of the people who die at the hands of police have some kind of disability. A more recent study of unofficial databases built by the Washington Post and the Guardian found that black men were the demographic most at risk of being killed during interactions with police, but people with mental illness across all groups faced a risk of death that was seven times greater than for those without.

“Verbal commands probably aren’t gonna work” in many of these situations, says Brown. “So how do we train de-escalation when the conditions aren’t going the way that we anticipate them to go?”

Axon, formerly known as Taser, produced the films last year in collaboration with mental health, community, and policing experts and rolled them out last month with a press conference at the Chicago Police Department, which will use a dozen helmets to train its officers. As part of ongoing efforts to improve its response to people in emotional crisis, the department has already put 2,700 officers through crisis intervention training, or CIT, a 40-hour........

© Fast Company