Chicago police using virtual reality for mental health crisis training

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago police are using virtual reality technology to put officers in the shoes of someone dealing with a mental health crisis and to help them make the right choices when they respond to that situation.

With officers' eyes and ears covered, it's meant to be a completely immersive experience.

"It's very real," said Chicago Police Officer Carmichael Lewis.

At police headquarters Wednesday, five officers wore virtual reality headsets loaded with 360 degree software meant to walk a real-world mental health call. They get to be a person in crisis and a police officer making choices.

"It's a great tool to see both perspectives of the person in crisis and the officer," said Officer Joanne Cardinale.

"As an officer, it would allow you to be a little bit more empathetic about someone you approach and they're going through a mental health crisis," said Officer Joaquin Rodgers.

It's a new pilot program for the Chicago Police Department being used right now in the police academy. Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said this is a crucial tool.

"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 that person getting hurt," Johnson said.

It was only in 2015 when an officer responded to the home of Quintonio LeGrier as he was in mental distress and opened fire after an altercation, killing LeGrier and his neighbor Bettie Jones.

"Training in classrooms with PowerPoints, it just doesn't work. It doesn't, you know? We have to be more scenario based to put these officers in the moment," Johnson said.

Northwestern Medicine Psychiatrist Crystal T. Clark agrees, saying officers need to know how their actions affect people in mental crisis.

"What an officer does may escalate the situation instead of de-escalate," Clark said. "I think it's so important that we have that perspective and I think it will help them respond better in a real-life situation."
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