COVID-19 and the Efficacy of Using Virtual Reality Scenarios to Safely Train Police in Mental Health Crisis Response
In partnership with Dark Slope, researchers from Ryerson University, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the University of Victoria plan to develop a VR-training system to ensure that scenario-based police training in de-escalation and mental health crisis response can continue during the COVID‑19 pandemic. At the request of the Ministry of the Solicitor General, the research team recently developed their evidence-based training protocol into a standardized curriculum for officers across Ontario. However, the social isolation measures due to COVID‑19 have made scenario-based training an impossibility. This suspension of police training in mental health crisis response dangerously compromises both public and officer safety, particularly in light of the current upsurge in police calls for service to respond to citizens in mental health crisis. The research team intends to migrate its scenario-based curriculum onto a Virtual Reality (VR) platform. This new approach, which we will deliver in an 8-month timeframe, will ensure mental health crisis response training can continue safely during pandemic restrictions without compromising the effectiveness of the evidence-based training protocol. Within this time-frame, we will have a clear vision of how to incorporate new elements (social-distancing guidelines, officer and public safety, COVID-related stressors) into training scenarios, and how to maximize the potential of VR as a platform for training. Specifically, we will gain insights into how VR can be used to reduce the reliance on in-person actors on-site; how a hybrid decision-making system can optimize tradeoffs between responsiveness and scalability with Non-Player Character (NPC)/avatars; how scenarios and training can evolve to incorporate COVID-19-specific elements in a VR context; and, more generally, how VR can increase the effectiveness and scalability of scenario-based de-escalation training. As a response to COVID-19, the research applies technology and engineering research in direct service to evidence-based approaches to help create a safer, more equitable relationship between law enforcement and the wider society, particularly citizens who are often marginalized such as those living with serious mental illness.