Documents Show Police Virtual Reality Training for 'Mentally Ill Subjects'

The scenarios in VirTra's training include "Hot tub trio," where an officer encounters people "in the backyard hot tub, playing loud music and possibly smoking marijuana."
June 28, 2021, 1:03pm
VirTra training
Image: VirTra
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Police forces are using virtual reality experiences to try and train their officers to respond to active shooter and mental health incidents, according to internal lesson plan documents.

The news shows the increasing use of virtual reality among law enforcement agencies, and the growing industry of firms willing to offer it. As well as VirTra, the company mentioned in these plans, government contractor Axon has also launched its own virtual reality training product.

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"VirTra created immersive science-based training simulations designed to teach a variety of cognitive and psycho-motor skills ranging from de-escalation to judgmental use of force to situational awareness," the website for Arizona-based VirTra reads. "Whether your department is interested in a new firearm training simulator or police scenario training system, VirTra provides a variety of training solutions."

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Some of the scenarios that VirTra offers to customers include "Hot tub trio," where an officer encounters people "in the backyard hot tub, playing loud music and possibly smoking marijuana," and has to decide how to respond to someone confronting them with a liquor bottle, according to scenario descriptions found online. Another is "School Mayhem," where an officer has to respond to shots fired at a school. Some of the "EDP (emotionally disturbed person)" scenarios are called "Mad Bomber," "Suicide By Cop," and "Bag Man." In practice, officers stand in front of a circular set of large monitors that play footage of the acted out incident; officers can then make decisions on when and whether to fire their weapon, for example.

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The documents, lesson plan outlines obtained from the Orlando Police Department via a public record request, lay out in more detail what trainees will be asked to do.

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A section of the one of the lesson plans. Image: Motherboard.

"Develop a better understanding of how to interact with an Emotionally Disturbed Person," one of the plans reads under the heading "learning goal." They are asked to demonstrate proper de-escalation techniques such as "communicating calmly and clearly with the individual and reducing the immediacy of any threat so they more time, options and resources are available to the officer to resolve the situation with the least amount of force as possible." They are also asked to show the "deployment of less than lethal tools."

In one scenario described in the lesson plans, "The trainee(s) should recognize that they are dealing with an emotionally disturbed person that keeps referring to himself as an astronaut for NASA. During the initial encounter the suspect will become agitated at the trainee(s) presence. The instructor can choose if the dialogue will be escalated or de-escalated, depending on the trainee(s) interaction. The instructor can also have the suspect comply or turn hostile depending on the trainee(s) actions. The suspect will respond to (spray, electronic control device, or lethal force)."

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VirTra also has contracts with federal agencies such as Customs and Border Protection and the Secret Service, according to online contracting records viewed by Motherboard.

"I am happy to see the highlight of how agencies are using the system. We support and encourage the use of it as a highly effective tool for teaching and emphasizing de-escalation," Lon Bartel, VirTra’s director of training and curriculum, said in a statement.

Earlier this year Orlando launched a pilot program in which mental health professionals would be sent to nonviolent calls for service.

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