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Phoenix police to use virtual reality headsets for empathy training

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PHOENIX — The Phoenix Police Department responds to calls involving behavioral health issues every day.

Soon, the department will have more access to better handle those calls thanks to a new technology from Scottsdale-based Axon, which offers de-escalation empathy training through virtual reality headsets.

Phoenix police said it will add Axon’s VR headsets in the next three to four months.

“These are shot in a first-person perspective, so when you have an opportunity to go through it you’ll play both the individual going through a crisis, hone in on what it feels like and then you also go through the perspective as a responding officer and can see how stressful that is,” Laura Brown, a senior trainer with Axon, told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Tuesday.

The de-escalation training includes different simulations for schizophrenia, autism, and suicide.

The immersive training includes hearing voices, shadows and also allows for interaction with a hand control that acts as a pointer for the officer to decide what to do next.

Axon worked with clinicians to make everything as realistic as possible.

“We’re specifically training them on states of being or conditions that you may not be verbally responsive to verbal commands,” Brown said.

KTAR News went through a simulation of someone experiencing a schizophrenic episode. Voices were heard through the VR headset and shadows were seen as police were attempting to approach the person who was in a mental crisis.

It was realistic in the sense that anywhere you looked or walked, you were inside the scene until it ended with a black screen giving you a statistic about behavioral health.

“It’s not the first time we are talking about what de-escalation training is all about,” Phoenix Police Sgt. Mercedes Fortune said. “We’re reaching out to technology and actually using technology, I think it’s just going to make us better.”

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