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Simulator Research: How Officers Respond to Situations Involving Mental Health

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Nicole Militello

Senior Media Relations Specialist

Nicole Militello

News  •
Kaylee Widener
Kaylee Widener

When psychology graduate student Kaylee Widener started working closely with police officers, she noticed a gap in training.

“I saw there was a need for more training on how they respond to mental health situations, but we really had no idea where the basic knowledge stood,” Widener explains. “I wanted to structure a project that gave us a general idea of how officers thought about mental illness, how they reacted to mental illness, and how much they know about symptoms and were capable of recognizing symptoms on a call.”

With that goal in mind, Kaylee launched a study at the beginning of 2020 using simulator equipment to gauge officers’ reactions to a video. She partnered with the Southwest Virginia Criminal Justice Academy to play out a probable scenario and collect data — an experience the academy’s executive director says is helpful for the officers.

Tim Tester, the academy’s executive director, says this work is helpful for the officers in training. “This research benefits the academy because it helps highlight aspects of training that may be deficient. Seeing how officers react, or don’t react, in the scenario enables us to address issues to improve outcomes.”

The study works like this: Officers who volunteer to participate in the study take a survey and  then go into a room with a projector and a service weapon hooked up to sensors. They watch a video of a call they would respond to out in the field and are asked to react as they would in real life.  Some officers are told ahead of time the individual they will encounter in the simulation has a mental illness; others don’t learn that information ahead of time. The study closes with a post-simulation survey.

“How long did it take them to draw a weapon?” Widener asks. “Did they try to use de-escalation techniques? Did they think the person was a danger?”

In the past year, dozens of officers have stepped into the simulator scenario. So far, Widener has found that when officers are told in advance about the individual in question’s mental illness, they wait longer to use force. What’s more, they demonstrated reduced confidence about their decision to use force compared to the officers who were not told mental illness was involved. The findings also reveal there is no difference between officers who have gone through special mental illness training and those who have not.

“Officers need to recognize that traditional police actions may not always work when mental illness is part of the equation,” Tester explains. “This research allows for the officers to experience different outcomes and results in a controlled environment.”

Tester says time and money are the two biggest hurdles to officers getting more training to prepare for challenging situations. This study is particularly valuable because it lets them play out scenarios that they could well encounter in the field.

Going forward, Widener plans to continue her study and expand beyond Virginia. “It’s an important topic,” she says, “and we need more people willing to put in the work.”