Windsor police use virtual reality to improve de-escalation skills

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There is an upset man in the bus shelter.

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He speaks repeatedly, utters obscenities. His breathing is heavy. He randomly bumps into the walls of the shelter. He pulls up his coffee-stained shirt.

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

You have just left your police cruiser. How do you feel about the situation? What do you say?

The wrong tone of voice, the wrong words, the wrong actions, and a man runs out into a busy street, endangering himself and everyone around him.

Not optimal performance, officer.

Fortunately, the disturbed man – whose name is Umar – is not a real person. He’s a character in the virtual reality environment of Windsor Police’s newest training tool.

Const.  Nick Long from Windsor Police demonstrates new mental health crisis response training in virtual reality.  Photographed on December 14, 2022.
Const. Nick Long from Windsor Police demonstrates new mental health crisis response training in virtual reality. Photographed on December 14, 2022. Photo by Dax Melmer /Star of Windsor

This year, the Windsor Police Service became one of the first law enforcement agencies in Ontario to adopt virtual reality mental health crisis response training. It is a program developed by the educational software company Lumeto for the Attorney General’s Office.

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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 a relationship with objects.”

As part of the program, participants put on VR goggles and use handheld controllers to enter a digitally created world where they deal with different scenarios.

Umar’s predicament is one of several situations currently available on the show that are based on real events.

A look at one of the VR environments in Windsor Police's new virtual reality mental health crisis response training program.  Photographed on December 14, 2022.
A look at one of the VR environments in Windsor Police’s new virtual reality mental health crisis response training program. Photographed on December 14, 2022. Photo by Dalson Chen /Star of Windsor

While a trainee in the script, Karpenko can control Umar’s behavior – increasing or decreasing the character’s level of agitation depending on the officer’s decision.

Make the best decision and Umar will respond and comply. Act carelessly and Umar could become aggressive, engage in self-harm or run into traffic.

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“Umar is having a mental health crisis,” Karpenko said. “But there may be a crime here, too.

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

The police officers dealing optimally with Umar might learn that he is an autistic person employed at a nearby cafe and that the rude behavior of a group of young customers triggered an emotional episode due to the trauma of bullying in his childhood.

Const.  Nick Long from the Windsor Police Force practices de-escalation skills in a VR environment.  Photographed on December 14, 2022.
Const. Nick Long from the Windsor Police Force practices de-escalation skills in a VR environment. Photographed on December 14, 2022. Photo by Dalson Chen /Star of Windsor

Windsor police Const. Nick Long, a certified instructor of the program together with Karpenko, confirms 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 working with individuals in mental health crisis.

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

“I was doing what I would do on a real call,” Long said.

Const.  Adam Karpenko, an instructor with the Windsor Police Training Branch, monitors a new mental health crisis response training program in virtual reality.  Photographed on December 14, 2022.
Const. Adam Karpenko, an instructor with the Windsor Police Training Branch, monitors a new mental health crisis response training program in virtual reality. Photographed on December 14, 2022. Photo by Dax Melmer /Star of Windsor

Karpenko said the scenarios “were not mitigated at all” from what police officers might encounter on the job.

For example, there is a phrase that Umar repeats that contains an offensive term for the mentally disabled. That’s what the bullying customers in the cafe called him.

“It’s not G-rated,” Karpenko said. “There’s profanity in it.” There is violence, there are drugs. Because we see it as the police.”

VR scenarios are only one part of the program. Before touching the glasses, participants participate in guided discussions and watch video lessons.

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The videos offer instructive re-enactments of the encounter, followed by commentary from law enforcement practitioners, mental health crisis management professionals, and even individuals with lived experience in mental health situations.

For example, Umar’s lesson plan includes commentary from a diagnosed autistic person—something that has not previously been part of officer training.

Indeed, Karpenko believes one of Lumeto’s greatest advances is not its introduction of VR technology, but the standardization of police training in recognizing and responding to mental health crises.

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

“This program ensures that officers across the province – and perhaps eventually across the country – will have the same training.”

Const.  Windsor Police's Nick Long gets fit in the VR 'lobby' of Windsor Police's new virtual reality mental health crisis response training program.  Photographed on December 14, 2022.
Const. Windsor Police’s Nick Long gets fit in the VR ‘lobby’ of Windsor Police’s new virtual reality mental health crisis response training program. Photographed on December 14, 2022. Photo by Dalson Chen /Star of Windsor

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

Windsor Police has since fully committed to incorporating the program into mandatory training.

Werstein said every WPS officer puts time into the program at least once a year as part of their annual training.

“Plus, every brand new officer we hire gets it before they hit the road,” Werstein said.

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The program is free to Windsor Police. Werstein said all the necessary equipment and online resources were provided by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.

Werstein pointed out that trying to do similar training without VR would be prohibitively expensive. “We would need to have a physical stage, we would need to hire actors,” he said.

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

Const.  Nick Long from Windsor Police demonstrates new mental health crisis response training in virtual reality.  Photographed on December 14, 2022.
Const. Nick Long from Windsor Police demonstrates new mental health crisis response training in virtual reality. Photographed on December 14, 2022. Photo by Dax Melmer /Star of Windsor

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 in terms of de-escalation techniques is good,” Crosby said.

Asked if he thought the Lumeto program could change the way Windsor police respond to incidents like what happened on Aug. 15 — when a mentally healthy man aggressively approached officers with a machete, resulting in his fatal shot – Crosby said every situation is different.

“Officers have to respond to what they’re facing,” 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 choice for training. We always worked on defensive tactics, firearms. But this is cutting edge technology and a full learning experience.”

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