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Pa. officers to use ‘cutting edge’ virtual reality to train for de-escalation

“What we’re trying to do is stay ahead of the curve,” said Central Bucks Regional Chief Karl Knott

vive headsets Bucks County District Attorney's Office

Bucks County District Attorney’s Office

By Christopher Dornblaser
Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Sometime next year, officers from four Central Bucks police departments will be entering “virtual reality” to help deal with possible, real-life scenarios where they have to de-escalate a situation to make sure everyone involved is safe.

Central Bucks Regional Police, along with Buckingham, Doylestown Township and Plumstead police departments, will be using “very advanced” virtual reality headsets to conduct various scenarios in which officers will have to de-escalate a situation, according to Central Bucks Regional Chief Karl Knott.

“What we’re trying to do is stay ahead of the curve,” he said.

The regional police department announced Wednesday that it received a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) of $159,037. The funding will go to purchasing the equipment and training the officers.

An officer from each department will be trained on how to use the devices, and will in turn train their respective departments.

“This is kind of cutting edge for law enforcement right now,” Plumstead Chief David Mettin said.

Chief Knott said his department has trained for de-escalation tactics in the past, but decided last year to pursue this among the national conversation on policing spurred by the police custody death of George Floyd last year.

“This really is another tool in our toolbelt to keep people safe and to do the job the right way,” Mettin said.

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Officers put these headsets on, which will provide a virtual reality overlay for them to experience simulations of various incidents that would require de-escalation, such as someone dealing with an emotional or mental health crisis.

In these VR scenarios, the trainer can speak directly to the officers as the person in need of de-escalation. The trainer can also alter the time of day that the training scenario might take place in.

“There’s a lot of dialogue going back and forth,” Knott said.

“This is totally different with the virtual reality,” Buckingham Lt. Will Moffett said.

There will also be extensive debriefing and reviews that follow the trainings, according to Knott.

Mettin said the training will be realistic scenarios that officers may have to go through.

The priority, he said, is to help officers recognize aggressive behaviors and keep them from escalating.

“Implementing this new de-escalation training strategy will reduce the potential for officer and public injury, reduce complaints and liability to the departments,” Doylestown Township Chief Dean Logan said in a statement.

Both Moffett and Mettin said their respective departments have done de-escalation training in the past.

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It’s one of those things we need to do as a police department,” Mettin said.

“We always need to improve,” he added.

The less hand-to-hand confrontation there is, the safer it is for everyone, the Plumstead chief said.

“We don’t want to harm people needlessly,” he said.

Moffett said de-escalation is the “heart” of police contact, and that the department trains officers to calm the situation and not escalate it before it gets to “excitable” levels.

“We believe it is the fundamental foundation between the police and citizen contact,” he said.

Knott said the officers who will train their respective departments are expected to go to training themselves on the VR headsets in Maryland sometime next month.

The equipment still needs to be purchased, and the trainers have to develop a curriculum before all the other officers can be trained, according to Knott. He estimated it will probably be around the spring when officers in all four departments will begin the VR training.

“The time will allow us to do it right and not just rush into something,” Moffett said.

The two-year grant will provide funding for the equipment, officer overtime and the training program, as well as continuous training of all the officers. Knott expects the program will expand beyond the four departments at some point.

“There will be a time, probably in the second year, we can offer that training to other departments in Bucks County,” he said.

The Central Bucks departments are not the only ones taking advantage of VR training.

Recently, members of the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office participated in a virtual reality simulation by the Lenape Valley Foundation.

DA’s office representatives tried scenarios that ranged from responding to a crisis call involving someone who is mentally ill, to intervening on a fellow officer when that officer is unnecessarily escalating a situation.

“I was so impressed with it,” DA Matt Weintraub said in a social media post. “The VR training for police crisis intervention is a critical bridge between the lecture and role play training that our officers already receive.

“I hope all of our police are able to take advantage of this. The public should inquire about it too.”

Bucks County has 15 headsets that members of the Bucks County Crisis Intervention team will be able to use.

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The partnership between the four Central Bucks departments is the second police initiative that the four departments have worked together in since last year.

Central Bucks Regional Police started a victim specialists unit, which helps guide victims through the criminal justice system.

The two specialists also provide services to Doylestown Township, Buckingham and Plumstead police departments.

The four departments are also apart of “Supporting Treatment and Recovery Program,” or STAR, which is meant to connect those dealing with substance abuse or addiction with the help they need. The program, headed by Plumstead police, also includes New Hope and Solebury.

(c)2021 Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.