Deputy Jayson White, of the Athens County Sheriff's office, experiences the "Chet" training scenario at the Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative event hosted at the Ohio University Police Department on Aug. 21. The specific training simulation that White watched aims to train law enforcement officers to appropriately address someone with mental illness.

ATHENS — The future of policing may lie in the three-dimensional world of a virtual reality headset.

Or at least, that’s what the folks behind Ohio University’s Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative believe.

The program is a collaboration between OU’s Voinovich School, Athens law enforcement and OU’s Scripps College of Communication, and is designed to reinvigorate the way police officers think about training through two immersive scenarios.

Those simulations, filmed with CineVR technology, teach officers how to deescalate a mental health crisis and reckon with the compound effects of racial profiling of the Black community.

Max Semenczuk, an Ohio University student studying IT and journalism, attends the Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative event hosted by the Ohio University Police Department on Aug. 21.

“The impetus for this comes from the notion that even before some of the dramatic events that unfolded in the press and in the world around law enforcement, current police training is lacking in a number of ways,” David Malawista said.

Malawista, a reserve commander with Athens police and a clinical and forensic psychologist, hopes the VR training can reshape the way officers think about behaving within policy versus promoting the best outcome.

As a consultant on the project, he helped develop the scripts for the two scenarios featuring “Chet,” a veteran with PTSD, and “Dion,” an African American graduate student.

Malawista is confident this technology, which is being offered to local Athens County law enforcement through the end of the year before expanding to contiguous rural counties, will be the way of the future of police training.

Launching into (virtual) reality

A little over a year and a half ago OU Visiting Assistant Professor John Born turned the dream of virtual training into a reality when he secured $200,000 from the Voinovich School’s application grant program to invest in rural law enforcement.

“Appalachia is not normally at the forefront of these innovative tech programs, but that’s what the Voinovich School is all about,” said Born, an Athens native who served as director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety for six years. 

The former colonel of the State Highway Patrol said he believes this initiative will provide police officers, particularly those in rural departments with scarce resources, a fresh perspective by reinforcing communication skills to deescalate high-pressure situations.

Jay Johnson, director of the Voinovich Academy at Ohio University, experiences the "Dion" training scenario at the Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative event hosted at the Ohio University Police Department on Aug. 21. This specific training simulation aims to train law enforcement officers on how to appropriately address someone who may identify themselves as African American

Born watched officers at the initiative’s informal launch last weekend express awe at each of the 20-minute scenarios, which also involve two props: a mangled lunchbox and backpack, that Born says will help officers establish a mnemonic connection when they pass by the props in the break room.

That’s because virtual reality is an incredibly powerful medium, Eric Williams explained.

Williams, a professor of New Media Storytelling at OU, also collaborated on the initiative and explained that this latest technology establishes a connection in your brain that sticks with you as if you have experienced the events you’ve witnessed in a headset.

“If you’re a police officer and you’re remembering your training like it’s a personal memory that’s much different than a two-dimensional video or lecture,” he said.

Steps for the future 

On Tuesday, the initiative will roll out the technology to law enforcement agencies throughout Athens County, where officers will be able to use headsets during shift breaks on a volunteer basis, Malawista said.

Tim Ryan with the Ohio University Police Department stands silhouetted against the main entrance of OUPD, which hosted the Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative event on Aug. 21.

 Then, in January, the program will expand to nearby contiguous counties, with the hopes of eventually branching out across the state, he added.

“This really provides officers with the opportunity to have a positive impact in their community,” Malawista said. “How do you manage a crisis? Well, the training teaches you how to put one’s personal emotions aside and control the situation with minimal force.”

The program will formally survey officers who’ve done the training to analyze how many people the initiative reached, what they think about the technology and if it affects real-life policing over the course of the next year and a half, Born said.

“After 32 years in this field I’ve never seen anything impact people in such an immersive way,” he added.

Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.

cdoyle@dispatch.com

@cadoyle_18

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