CHICAGO — Virtual reality technology will be used to help in training Chicago police officers on how to deal with people experiencing mental health episodes.

The pilot program will be folded into the department’s crisis intervention training that became mandatory for officers as part of the federal consent decree aimed at overhauling how the city’s historically troubled police department operates.

This marks the latest example of the department turning to technology to aid in its crime-fighting and officer-training efforts.

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Developed by Axon, the company that has also provided the department with its body-worn cameras, the virtual reality technology allows its users to view computer-simulated scenarios through special headgear.

The training covers how officers should react to people with schizophrenia or autism.

Questions shown in small boxes on a screen are posed for officers on how to handle particular situations: Do they tell the person to drop their knife or calmly ask if he wants to just talk? Officers pick the appropriate boxes by making eye contact.

At a news conference at police headquarters recently, several officers tried out the new technology in front of news cameras and reporters.

Officer Kristyn Malinowski credited the training as realistic.

“It makes you think about your options,” she said. “And it also gives you the viewpoint of the person maybe that you’re dealing with that maybe has a mental illness … and puts you in their shoes.”

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stressed the importance of the training because of how easily the interactions between officers and people experiencing a mental health episode can turn sour if police don’t handle it correctly.

“If we don’t respond to it quickly or appropriately, we can turn a mental health crisis into a criminal situation that can escalate into either that person getting hurt … or that officer getting injured. And that’s what we don’t want to do,” Johnson said. “So the more we train (and) provide resources for these officers to be able to identify and give them the tools that they need to be able to deal with it, the risk to the person involved and the officer goes down.”

The new training will be administered at the police academy.

© 2019 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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