Mobile city officials will vote on Tuesday to spend nearly $50,000 to purchase 10 virtual reality headsets.
But the purchases aren’t meant to serve as a taxpayer-funded trip into the metaverse. They don’t play video games.
The equipment, when obtained, will provide the city’s police department of approximately 460 officers with a trending and rapidly growing approach to training for increasingly difficult encounters with people struggling with mental illness.
With the headsets, officers can simulate and practice a range of real-life scenarios, including active fire drills or encountering suicidal people.
“These are real-world scenarios reviewed by professionals involved in the mental health world and that helps our officers,” said Mobile Police Chief Paul Prine. “It is designed to give our officers the opportunity to practice, learn how to manage and respond to people with mental health issues. It gives us the opportunity to do this in a virtual world and learn best practices for dealing with these people before (encountering situations) in the real world. »
The city buys the helmet from Axon Technologies, based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Funding comes from a grant from the US Department of Justice.
It’s a buy that’s becoming more mainstream among law enforcement as the use of virtual reality becomes more high-tech. The Montgomery and Tuscaloosa Police Departments use virtual equipment during crisis response training. The same Axon equipment is used by the Montgomery Sheriff’s Department.
In Birmingham, although no virtual training is currently in use, a police spokeswoman said the agency was looking to expand its training efforts.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Training Center uses virtual environments to provide various types of training for state troopers and State Bureau of Investigation special agents.
But so far, the agency does not offer training via virtual reality headsets, ALEA said in a statement to AL.com.
“ALEA is constantly looking for new, innovative ways to integrate technology into basic real-world scenario training that provides our sworn personnel with the opportunity to further develop and improve their skills,” ALEA’s statement reads. . “ALEA is fully committed to pursuing traditional and technological training solutions to enable soldiers and special agents to provide the highest level of service and visitors to the State of Alabama.”
Lawrence Battiste, Mobile’s executive director of public safety and a former police chief, said officers discovered the virtual headset equipment during a recent training trip to Houston.
He said Mobile is already using VR simulation in training for handling DUIs and other issues. Headsets would be additional technology and opportunities through virtual reality training, Battiste said.
“It teaches our officers how to mitigate the situation in the best possible way,” Battiste said.
The immersive technology has been criticized by some who say it removes the human element from police training.
Prine said while that’s a valid concern, it’s not worth snubbing what he says is a useful training tool for diffusing difficult situations.
“The only thing that’s not okay is waiting until you’re dealing with a real-life scenario where we haven’t had any practice,” Prine said. “Any training helps our law enforcement officers with the best training and practices and that’s what VR will do.”
He added: “The human factor must always be present, and it will be different with each officer on how he or she approaches this real-world scenario. The idea is that we learn and understand what is involved in (different) behaviors. This gives agents the tool to manage this interaction. »
Hee Yun Lee, a professor at the University of Alabama’s School of Social Work, said she believes virtual reality creates a “really good environment” for researchers to examine improvements in individual offices. in how to approach people with mental illness.
Lee leads a research team looking at online training designed to improve the police response to people with serious mental illnesses. The team received $375,000 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to develop an online training course for law enforcement officers to improve police interactions with people with mental illness severe.
The statistics, provided by the research team, show that a problematic aspect of police-community relations involves interactions between officers and people with serious mental illness. According to statistics from the non-profit group Mental Health America, about 4% of American adults suffer from serious mental illness, but they are involved in 20% of police calls and occupy 20% of prisons and prison beds in the States. -United. Additionally, adults with severe mental illness are overrepresented in deadly interactions with law enforcement.
“If used in an appropriate situation, (virtual reality) is a good tool in a police environment,” Lee said. “We see this as a great training model for first responders.”
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