Hamilton Police use virtual reality to improve response to people in mental health crisis

const. Scott Woods stands in the doorway and talks to a man named Jamie.

Jamie is home alone in a rooming house and is petrified. He tells Woods that there are people outside who attacked him.

Jamie has facial injuries and sore ribs, he lives with PTSD, and he smoked marijuana before Woods arrived.

Police dispatchers also told Woods that Jamie had a history of drug possession, resisting arrest, theft and mental health issues.

Next, Jamie picks up a baseball bat. “They’re coming back for me!” he shouts at Woods.

Moments later, Woods calms Jamie down without using force. Then Woods takes off his virtual reality headset.

Woods is a real Hamilton Police Department officer, but everything else was a simulation.

Wilfrid Laurier University researcher Dr. Jennifer Lavoie worked on the virtual reality training program with Metropolitan University of Toronto researcher Dr. Natalie Alvarez to improve police response to people in mental health crisis. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

It is part of the Hamilton Police Service’s new Mental Health Crisis Response Training Program and is designed to help police officers recognize the signs of a mental health crisis and improve the way they defuse situations.

The program is the result of six years of work by Dr. Jennifer Lavoie, researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Dr. Natalie Alvarez, researcher at Metropolitan University of Toronto, who compare the effectiveness of live training to virtual reality.

Lavoie said it also included consultations with medical professionals, community groups, people living with mental illness, anti-discrimination experts, police instructors and people whom the police have told. knocked on their door.

“They have this lived experience and sometimes it doesn’t go well, often it doesn’t go well. We need to recognize those gaps and experiences and they need to be authentically incorporated,” Lavoie said.

“We’re here to change the way the police respond…we’ve all seen the statistics, we know that people with a history of mental illness are more likely to be injured or killed.”

Lavoie also said the lineup was developed in direct response to Sammy Yatim’s death.

Former Toronto police officer James Forcillo shot the teenager on a TTC streetcar in 2013. Forcillo was convicted of attempted murder in 2016 and began serving time in November 2017, but got full parole in 2020.

The shooting led Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé to publish a scathing review of police training in Ontario, calling for officers to undergo better de-escalation training.

It also prompted former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to make 84 recommendations to police.

“We know that most officers aren’t particularly well trained to respond to mental health crisis scenarios,” Lavoie said.

Training “Choose your own adventure”

Lavoie said the training is like a “choose your own adventure” for the officers because they can react however they want and the simulation – controlled by the trainer – will escalate accordingly.

For example, if an officer decides to point a gun at Jamie after picking up a bat, the trainer can pause the scenario and use it as a time to teach the officer what to do instead.

Lavoie said there are currently six VR-ready situations. Three are 90 minute drills and three are 10 minute evaluations where an officer in training gets a grade at the end.

Settings include a house, an emergency room, and a park. Lavoie said there is also diversity in storylines, highlighting a situation involving an Indigenous person who is hallucinating and another involving a youth transitioning to a different gender.

“They need to know how to respond to everyone in our community,” she said.

The ultimate goal goes beyond seeing better practice scores over time.

“What we would like is fewer injuries, fewer use of force incidents, better referrals to services. We would like to see that in police practice,” Lavoie said.

const. Scott Woods of the Hamilton Police Department demonstrates virtual reality training. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist in Toronto with the Global Law Enforcement and Public Health Association, who is not affiliated with the training, said the program looked promising.

She highlighted the use of virtual reality in the therapy of anxiety disorders.

“It helps trigger a physiological response…it helps us to be in that mode, in that situation,” Kamkar said in a phone interview Thursday morning.

“Anything we can use to optimize education, training, knowledge acquisition [and confidence] …it’s a great tool,” she said, adding that more research was important.

Hamilton Police already has programs like COAST, Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team, Rapid Response Support Team and the Social Navigator Program.

It’s also the first police service in Ontario to offer the program, which joined just a few weeks ago.

Lavoie said that while his study to determine if live action is better than virtual reality will soon be complete, we know that virtual reality is much more affordable and easily accessible.

The program is licensed and free to municipal and First Nations police services in Ontario.

Ms. Lavoie said she is confident that others will soon follow the training program, which will lead to standardized training across the province.