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This Maryland police department is looking to use virtual technology to practice better policing

The Hyattsville Police Department in Prince George's County, Md. is looking to acquire outside funding to bring an interactive way to train its officers.
Credit: Hyattsville Police Department, Facebook
Hyattsville Police Department Lt. DonBullian and Sgt. Hartnett are enjoying a trip through a virtual reality cyberspace.

HYATTSVILLE, Md. — Data shows over 900 people have been shot and killed by police in the past year in the United States.

The Hyattsville Police Department in Prince George's County, Md. is hoping to acquire some outside funding to bring an innovative and interactive way to train its officers on de-escalation tactics.

Yup, it's virtual reality training. The department is still testing out the technology, but they are optimistic it would be a great addition to the police force.

As futuristic as it may sound, as a way to train officers on de-escalation tactics, members of the department gear up in virtual reality goggles and jump into a virtual universe where they are put to the test.

"This is a way for us to enhance all the classroom training, and of course, all the training the officers have in real life and that's what I'm excited about," Hyattsville Acting Police Chief Scott Dunklee said. "This is going to be something that is going to set us apart a little bit and step us up to a new level."

The virtual reality cyberspace provides immersive and interactive training experiences that not only reinforce de-escalation techniques in crisis scenarios but can also flip the role and put officers in the shoes of a person in crisis who may be living with mental health challenges such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer's, according to the department's Facebook post. 

Ready for liftoff! Well, not quite, but Lt. DonBullian and Sgt. Hartnett are enjoying a trip through virtual reality...

Posted by City of Hyattsville Police Department on Thursday, September 9, 2021

In the various modules, there are scenarios with messages that pop up in the VR goggles that share helpful queues on handling situations that could be tense and stressful during an encounter with police.

"I think that's the key, that having all the officers go through this and they'll develop different scenarios where we can build on this year after year," said Chief Dunklee. "But seeing it from the [perspective of the] person that's having a crisis or a breakdown that's really the value added to it [virtual training]."

Axon is the virtual reality company the department plans to source the VR goggles. The company has been traveling across the country visiting several police departments to bring this new form of public safety technology. According to Axon's website, their goal is to "give law enforcement the tools they need to focus on what matters, get to the truth faster and make the world a safer place."

One of Axon's initiatives is to protect human life in policing situations. 

"Officers aren’t trained to shoot to kill. They are trained to stop a threat. They use the tools they are given, and often have less than a second to make life-or-death decisions. Let’s give them better tools and put the toughest decisions in the hands of the courts. One day the bullet will be obsolete. We’re working on a device that will out-perform the handgun in every situation and let the people on either side of the weapon go home safe at the end of the day. " the company says on its website.

Credit: Hyattsville Police Department
Two Hyattsville Police officers use VR goggles to participate in a virtual de-escalation training module.

As we all know, the limelight of recent police killings has drawn more negative attention to the work that law enforcement does every day. HPD says it is proactively trying to change the stigma and educate its members on using better tactics so they won't have to result in the "use of force."

Although many sources report different variations of the number of police shootings in the U.S., according to the Washington Post, 937 people have been shot and killed at the hands of police.

"That's always the last resort. I think that even though it has gotten a lot of national attention lately it has always been our mission to save lives and we do that daily," said Chief Dunklee. "That's our goal every day when we get up for work is to settle things peacefully."

This is something Adrienne Augustus, HPD's public information officer and mental health programs manager is steadfast on implementing under her leadership.

Augustus has been very vocal about the need to shift police funding from a focus on routine law enforcement to a plan that includes funding for community support that works in collaboration with good policing.

As cool as it may sound, the department hopes to bring these progressive training opportunities to all officers very soon at their new Police and Public Safety Building set to reopen in 2022. Hyattsville's Administrator Tracey Douglas said the hope is that the building can serve as a regional training hub for multiple law enforcement jurisdictions in the area.

"We'll have a training room with a lot of scenario-based equipment and we hope to open it up to surrounding jurisdictions because it doesn't help for us to have this technology and for the Hyattsville Police Department to be trained when in many cases we work with our surrounding jurisdictions in response to incidents and issues," Douglass said.

The Hyattsville Police Department has also progressively implemented a mental health and wellness program. The initiative was started to train officers on how to compassionately respond to mental health crises and defuse situations that involve mental health patrons. Some officers in the department have already completed mental health first aid for law enforcement training.

RELATED: A call for service turned into a moment of compassion. Here's how this police officer saved the day

Credit: Hyattsville Police Department, Facebook
Hyattsville Police Officer Andrickson-Franko and Officer Gaskill helping a man in psychological distress.

The program offers law enforcement-focused mental health first aid training, a mental illness 101 education program, crisis intervention team training, and a required, quarterly mental wellness check-in program. It will also include PTSD and autism awareness training.

The department's mission to lead it in a progressive direction is not only to train officers on better policing tactics when addressing mental health, but the program will also plan to support first responders’ mental wellness. 

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