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A challenging but necessary conversation is made easier through virtual reality training

Peer intervention training from Axon teaches officers ways to approach a fellow officer about troublesome behavior


Sponsored by Axon

By Laura Neitzel, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

The death of George Floyd has led to policy reforms among law enforcement agencies, including implementation of new or strengthened “duty to intervene” policies at many.

Axon's peer intervention training uses virtual reality to help prepare officers to have those difficult conversations.
Axon's peer intervention training uses virtual reality to help prepare officers to have those difficult conversations. (Axon)

An officer may be held liable if they observe a fellow officer violate the constitutional rights of another person and have an opportunity to intervene but choose not to do so. While these cases are most often associated with excessive use of force, officers can be held liable for a failure to intervene in cases involving sexual misconduct, theft, false arrest, deliberate indifference to serious medical needs or a substantial risk of harm to a person in custody. 

The definition of duty to intercede and the situations in which it is required and necessary are not always exceedingly clear, according to Laura Scarry, a former police officer and attorney representing police officers, supervisors and agencies in cases including failure to train and duty to protect. Even if a failure to intervene is not a violation of the law per se, it may violate department policies, which can be more strict.

“Law enforcement is unique compared to any other profession, where you have to really depend on and lay your life in the hands of the person working with you,” said Jim Voutour, retired sheriff of Niagara County, New York. “There’s a bond and a trust that’s established in law enforcement, and you don’t want to break that bond. That’s why it’s so difficult to have peer-to-peer interaction when one officer sees something that’s incorrect – not necessarily criminal – but it could be ethically incorrect.”

Breaking the blue wall

The “blue wall of silence” can be hard to break through. It’s one thing to know intellectually that you are required by policy or law to intervene if your partner is engaging in or seems poised to engage in excessive use of force – but it’s another thing to know what to do or say to get them to de-escalate in the moment. Officers may be even more reluctant to speak out in circumstances where the offending officer holds a superior rank.

However, the reluctance to intervene in the actions of a fellow officer needs to be overcome. The risks to the law enforcement agency and the individual officers are simply too high, not to mention the risk of physical harm to civilians and damage to community-police relationships.

“From an admin standpoint, if I don’t train my people, that’s a lawsuit,” said Jessica Daley, a lieutenant with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama, who has consulted with Axon on their new peer intervention training course. “That’s $20 million down the drain for failure to train, which is probably the No. 1 reason agencies get sued nowadays.”

Guiding the conversation

Excessive use of force incidents in the media have drawn attention to an officer’s duty to intervene.

“I think probably leaders across the country have brought this up to their officers and said, ‘If you see something that’s not right, something that’s not good, someone that’s in distress, you have a duty and an obligation to react, as difficult as that may be,’” said Voutour.

But having that conversation with a trusted partner can be difficult.

“Officers are so brave. We’ll go into the unknown running headfirst. But you ask us to have a critical conversation with our partner of 20 years and we’re shaking in our boots,” said Antoine Lane, director of policy and strategic initiatives for Axon and a 30-year veteran of the Austin Police Department in Texas.

Axon’s peer intervention VR scenarios can help guide those conversations. The virtual reality (VR) nature of the training makes it easier, says Lane, because the characters within the scope of the virtual world carry the problem – not your actual partner.

The peer intervention training consists of a number of short scenarios based in reality. One scenario, for example, centers on a virtual officer whose frustration grows as he has to respond repeatedly to a noise complaint. On the third call to the same house, the officer starts to lose his temper. What happens next?

That’s where the officer wearing the VR headset has to make a choice. When do they intervene? How do they respond? Do they pull that virtual officer aside and have a talk right then and there? Do they wait until after the call? How long do they wait? What do they say? Do they approach the conversation head-on or hint at it? How will the virtual officer respond?

Axon’s peer intervention training offers strategies to have that crucial conversation and multiple opportunities to get it right in the safety of the training environment.

Getting everyone in the game

VR offers an opportunity to have a scenario set up where an officer can go in with a headset and get high-level training on a very necessary topic in a short period of time, Voutour says. VR also makes it easier to retain the lessons learned in that training and to practice more often.

To Voutour’s knowledge, the peer intervention VR training being offered by Axon is the first of its kind.

“Virtual reality is the vehicle that law enforcement’s been looking for,” said Voutour. “It’s giving agencies the opportunity to provide the kind of training that the country is demanding.”

Not only can the training scenarios be practiced in short spurts in between other tasks, VR  – no sets or actors needed – makes it more cost effective and, according to Daley, more engaging, especially to the “generation gamer” entering law enforcement now.

“Virtual reality is going to be an easy way for us to train our officers on numerous scenarios within 10 minutes and to have the mobility to go wherever I need to,” said Daley. “I don’t have to bring them in for a 12-hour training day or a two-week training session. I can do it in the middle of briefing one day.”

Do more than check the box

Lane hopes that the peer intervention training from Axon can help agencies not only “check the box” for peer intervention training but that it becomes a catalyst for reform.

If everyone in the department goes through the training and knows that leadership has given the expectation that it’s OK to call out your partner, peer pressure will help ensure that change will come, he says.

“It’s less important to try to put together a road map for delivering a lesson, than it is challenging a culture and giving them an idea of a start of a dialogue,” said Lane. “When you’re talking about peer-to-peer, it’s a very sensitive and oftentimes a one-shot try, so it is imperative that we arm people with the correct approach.”

Axon’s VR training, including new simulator training, is now available. Learn more at Axon.com/training/vr, or watch a webinar recording about peer intervention VR training here.

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