Virtual reality headsets: The latest trend in police training comes to Alabama

By John Sharp

Axon Immersion Training Virtual Reality (VR) headset, used in training police officers to learn the best way to interact with people who suffer with autism. Police officers are now using virtual reality to learn the best ways to interact with people who suffer from autism and de-escalate situations that could quickly turn awry. A new training simulation using virtual reality headsets is being rolled out by Aon, the company best known for developing the Taser. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) APAP

Mobile city officials will vote to spend close to $50,000 on Tuesday to purchase 10 virtual reality headsets.

But the purchases are not intended to serve as a taxpayer-funded trip into the Metaverse. They are not playing video games.

The equipment, once obtained, will offer the city’s police agency of approximately 460 officers a trendy and fast-growing approach to training for increasingly difficult encounters from people who struggle from mental illness.

With the headsets on, officers can simulate and practice a range of real-life scenarios including active shooter drills or encountering people who are suicidal.

“These are real-world scenarios vetted through professionals involved in the world of mental health and it helps our officers,” said Mobile Police Chief Paul Prine. “It’s designed to give our officers an opportunity to train, learn how to deal and to respond with those with mental challenges. It gives us an opportunity to do it in a virtual world and learn the best practices for dealing with those individuals before (encountering situations) in the real world.”

The city is purchasing the head gear from Scottsdale, Arizona-based Axon Technologies. The funding comes from a U.S. Department of Justice grant.

It’s a purchase that is becoming more widespread among law enforcement agencies as the use of virtual reality becomes more high-tech. Police agencies in Montgomery and Tuscaloosa use virtual equipment during crisis intervention training. The same Axon equipment is being used by the Montgomery Sheriff’s Department.

In Birmingham, while there is no virtual training currently being used, a police spokeswoman said the agency is looking to expand training efforts.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Training Center uses virtual environments to provide various types of training to both state troopers and special agents within the State Bureau of Investigation.

But so far, the agency does not provide training through virtual reality headsets, ALEA said in a statement to

“ALEA is continuously looking at new and innovative ways to incorporate technology into real-world scenario base training that provides our sworn personnel the opportunity to further develop and enhance their skill sets,” the ALEA statement reads. “ALEA is fully committed to looking at both traditional and technology-based training solutions to enable Troopers and Special Agents to provide the highest level of service and visitors of the state of Alabama.”

Lawrence Battiste, Mobile’s executive director of public safety and a former police chief, said officers learned about the virtual headset equipment during a recent training trip to Houston.

He said that Mobile already utilizes virtual reality simulation in training how to deal with DUIs and other issues. The headsets would be additional technology and opportunities through virtual reality training, Battiste said.

“It teaches our officers to mitigate the situation in the best way possible,” Battiste said.

The immersive technology has been criticized by some who say it removes the human element from police training.

Mobile Police Chief Paul Prine
Mobile Police Chief Paul Prine speaks during a news conference on Monday, March 21, 2022, inside the mayor’s conference room at Government Plaza in downtown Mobile, Ala. Seated next to Prine is James Barber, the chief of staff to Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. (John Sharp).

Prine said while a valid concern, it’s not worth snubbing what he says is a useful training tool in diffusing difficult situations.

“The one thing that is not acceptable is waiting until we are dealing with a real- world scenario where we’ve had no practice at all,” Prine said. “Any training aids our law enforcement officers with best training and practices and that is what virtual reality will do.”

He added, “The human factor always has to be present, and it will be different with every single officer on how he or she approaches that real world scenario. The idea is that we learn and understand what is involved in (different) behaviors. This gives the officers the tool with how to deal with that interaction.”

Hee Yun Lee, professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Alabama, said she believes virtual reality creates a “really good environment” for researchers to examine improvements by individual offices in how to approach people dealing with mental illness.

Lee is leading a research team that is examining online training designed to improve police response to people with serious mental illnesses. The team received $375,000 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to develop an online training course for law enforcement officers to help improve police interactions with people with severe mental illness.

Statistics, provided by the research team, show a problematic aspect of police-community relations involves interactions between officers and people with serious mental illness. According to statistics from the non-profit group Mental Health America, approximately 4% of U.S. adults experience severe mental illness, yet they are involved in 20% of police calls and occupy 20% of the U.S. prison and jail beds. Also, adults with severe mental illness are overrepresented in fatal interactions with law enforcement.

“If used in an appropriate situation, (virtual reality) is a good tool in a police officer environment,” said Lee. “We see this as a great training model for first responders.”