Windsor police use virtual reality to improve de-escalation skills

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const.  Nick Long of Windsor police demonstrates the service's new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training.  Photographed Dec  14, 2022. const. Nick Long of Windsor police demonstrates the service’s new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training. Photographed Dec 14, 2022. Photo by Dax Melmer /Windsor Star

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There’s an agitated man at a bus shelter.

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He’s speaking repetitively, uttering obscenities. His breathing is heavy. He randomly hits the shelter’s walls. He tugs on his coffee-stained shirt.

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You try to make out what he’s saying over the sounds of traffic. Vehicles roll by.

You’ve just exited your police cruiser. How do you approach the situation? What do you say?

The wrong tone of voice, the wrong words, the wrong actions, and the man takes off running into the busy street, endangering himself and everyone around him.

Not an optimal performance, officer.

Fortunately, the disturbed man — whose name is Umar — isn’t a real person. He’s a character in the virtual reality environment of the newest training tool of Windsor police.

const.  Nick Long of Windsor police demonstrates the service's new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training.  Photographed Dec  14, 2022. const. Nick Long of Windsor police demonstrates the service’s new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training. Photographed Dec 14, 2022. Photo by Dax Melmer /Windsor Star

The Windsor Police Service this year became one of the first law enforcement organizations in Ontario to adopt Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training. It’s a program developed by the educational software company Lumeto for the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

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const. Adam Karpenko, an instructor at the WPS training branch, said the program “relies heavily on de-escalation techniques. Slowing things down, creating rapport with subjects.”

As part of the program, trainees don VR goggles and use hand controllers to enter a digitally-constructed world where they deal with a variety of scenarios.

Umar’s predicament is one of several situations currently available in the program, based on real-life occurrences.

A view of one of the VR environments in the Windsor Police Service's new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training program.  Photographed Dec  14, 2022. A view of one of the VR environments in the Windsor Police Service’s new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training program. Photographed Dec 14, 2022. Photo by Dalson Chen /Windsor Star

While a trainee is in the scenario, Karpenko can control Umar’s behavior — raising or lowering the character’s level of agitation, depending on the officer’s decisions.

Make the best choices, and Umar will be responsive and compliant. Act carelessly, and Umar might become aggressive, engage in self-harm, or flee into traffic.

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“Umar is having a mental health crisis,” Karpenko said. “But there’s possibly a crime here, too.”

The trainee’s performance in the scenario is assessed and scored for demonstration of “crisis competencies,” such as active listening, humanizing the encounter, calming body language, and use of non-stigmatizing words.

Officers who deal with Umar in an optimal manner might learn that he is an autistic individual employed at a nearby cafe, and that the abusive behavior of a group of young customers has triggered an emotional episode due to bullying trauma in his childhood.

const.  Nick Long of Windsor police practices de-escalation skills in a VR environment.  Photographed Dec  14, 2022. const. Nick Long of Windsor police practices de-escalation skills in a VR environment. Photographed Dec 14, 2022. Photo by Dalson Chen /Windsor Star

Windsor Police Const. Nick Long, a certified instructor on the program along with Karpenko, attests to the practicality and realism of the training.

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As a member of the WPS Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team, as well as a registered nurse, Long has extensive experience with persons in mental health crisis.

Long said the first time he tried one of the program’s scenarios, “it felt real.”

“I was doing what I’d do on an actual call,” Long said.

const.  Adam Karpenko, an instructor at the Windsor police training branch, monitors the service's new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training program.  Photographed Dec  14, 2022. const. Adam Karpenko, an instructor at the Windsor police training branch, monitors the service’s new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training program. Photographed Dec 14, 2022. Photo by Dax Melmer /Windsor Star

Karpenko said the scenarios “have not been toned down at all” from what officers can encounter on the job.

For example, there’s a phrase Umar repeats that includes an offensive term for the mentally challenged. It’s what the bullying customers at the cafe called him.

“It’s not G-rated,” Karpenko said. “There’s swearing in it. There’s violence, there’s drugs. Because that’s what we see as police.”

VR scenarios are only one component of the program. Before trainees even touch the goggles, they take part in guided discussions and watch video lessons.

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The videos offer instructive re-enactments of encounters, with follow-up commentary from experts in law enforcement practices, professionals in mental health crisis management, and even individuals with lived experience in mental health situations.

For example, the Umar lesson plan includes commentary from a diagnosed autistic man — something that hasn’t been part of officer training before.

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Indeed, Karpenko believes one of the biggest advancements of the Lumeto program isn’t its introduction of VR technology, it’s the standardization of police training on recognizing and responding to mental health crises.

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“(Before this), we had limited resources,” Karpenko said. “It was based on experiences that we’d had, or things we heard from other police services — not a standardized platform.”

“This program makes sure that officers across the province — and possibly, eventually, across the country — are going to have the same training.”

const.  Nick Long of Windsor police equips himself in the 'lobby' of the VR environment in the Windsor Police Service's new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training program.  Photographed Dec  14, 2022. const. Nick Long of Windsor police equips himself in the ‘lobby’ of the VR environment in the Windsor Police Service’s new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training program. Photographed Dec 14, 2022. Photo by Dalson Chen /Windsor Star

Staff Sgt. Chris Werstein of the WPS training branch said Windsor police began considering use of VR last January.

Windsor police have since fully committed to integrating the program into mandatory training.

Werstein said every WPS officer will put time into the program at least once a year as part of their annual in-service training.

“Plus, every single brand new officer that we hire is going to get this before they hit the road,” Werstein said.

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The program comes at no additional cost to Windsor police. Werstein said all necessary equipment and online resources have been supplied by Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General.

Werstein pointed out that trying to accomplish similar training without VR would be exorbitantly expensive. “We’d need to have a physical set, we’d need to hire actors,” he said.

“With this program, officers can learn and practice again and again. And it costs Windsor police zero dollars.”

const.  Nick Long of Windsor police demonstrates the service's new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training.  Photographed Dec  14, 2022. const. Nick Long of Windsor police demonstrates the service’s new Virtual Reality Mental Health Crisis Response Training. Photographed Dec 14, 2022. Photo by Dax Melmer /Windsor Star

Insp. Jennifer Crosby, who oversees patrol support for Windsor police, is a believer in the benefits of VR training.

“Anything we can add to our training toolbox, as far as de-escalation techniques, is good,” Crosby said.

Asked if she felt the Lumeto program could change how Windsor police respond to occurrences such as what happened on Aug. 15 — when a mentally unsound man aggressively approached officers with a machete, resulting in him being fatally shot — Crosby said every situation is different.

“The officers have to respond to what they face,” Crosby said. “These (VR situations) are still static. While (the instructor) can control environmental factors in VR — it’s not real life.

“But it’s a good option for training. We’ve always worked on defensive tactics, firearms. But this is cutting-edge technology, and a full learning experience.”

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