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Mass. county corrections officers utilize virtual reality for de-escalation training

The program will help the Rockingham County COs learn how to read cues from someone’s body language and brush up on verbal skills to help inmates who may become hostile, suicidal and anything in-between

Rockingham County Department of Corrections

The Rockingham County Corrections Department, along with the Sheriff’s Office, is making use of two APEX Officer Simulators for deescalation training which the county purchased with opioid abatement funds.

Rockingham County Department of Corrections

By Angelina Berube
The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

BRENTWOOD, Mass. — At the county jail, an inmate dealing with substance abuse and a mental health crisis stabs another person outside his jail cell.

The corrections officer on duty has to talk him down and get him to drop the knife while he circles the officer, swinging his weapon back and forth.

Communication is key to deescalate the situation and keep everyone safe while maintaining order with other inmates looking on.

That’s the task Rockingham County corrections officers face in a virtual reality simulation to train them for real, on-the-job scenarios as the opioid crisis has altered everyday operations and interactions.

The Corrections Department, along with Sheriff’s Office, is making use of two APEX Officer Simulators for deescalation training which the county purchased with opioid abatement funds.

Rockingham County will receive at least $2.87 million over the next 15 years from various opioid settlements with pharmaceutical companies and distributors.

Rockingham County commissioners approved spending $70,000 on the high-tech simulators. The Corrections Department began training on them four months ago and still haven’t scratched the surface of all the scenarios that the virtual training provides, Lt. James Warden said.

Warden is the training director for the simulator. Retired Corrections Assistant Superintendent Dave Consentino also helps with training.

“Opioids have changed everything,” Corrections Superintendent Jason Henry said. “You have to talk down someone who may have a mental illness and now substance abuse is taking over in their brain.”

Henry has been in the field for over 20 years and has seen a shift in the amount of opioids used in the last 10 to 15 years.

“What we mainly see is co-current disorders,” Henry said. “They come into the jail with some sort of substance in them and a mental health issue.”

“Dealing with an individual who has mental health and substance abuse at the same time is a totally different skill set than it was years ago,” he said.

“You have to be able to talk to someone who is impaired who may also be in some sort of psychosis with their mental illness.”

Officers hold virtual reality tasers and guns for the simulation, but the goal in the training exercise is to not use them. In real life, corrections officers carry items such as tasers, firearms, pepper spray and batons on them when they work. But those weapons are last resort options. It’s about deescalating a tense situation by conversing with erratic inmates and getting them to calmly obey orders.

“Aggressive approaches do not solve anything,” Henry said.

The program will help the department learn how to read cues from someone’s body language and brush up on verbal skills to help inmates who may become hostile, suicidal and anything in-between.

The simulator comes with 180 different programs and allows its users to customize things like an individual’s posture and behavior. There are different settings like placing the user in a county jail, an apartment, the back of a police cruiser or even an abandoned building. What the inmate or individual is combating, like drugs, alcohol use or mental health crisis, along with the type of weapon they might have, is also customizable.

Simulation can be as intense as an inmate taking a nurse hostage with a deadly weapon after refusing to give out medication or as low key as putting an corrections officer inside a county jail and have him or her just walk around.

Virtual reality also is helpful with firearms training.

The officer becomes fully immersed in the 360 degree experience and learns how to use their verbal skills to deescalate a situation without using force.

During training, one officer controls what the user is confronted with from a computer. The officer in simulation and one behind the desk interact with headphones and microphones on tactics. The microphone allows the controller to also play the role of the inmate and talk, or argue, directly with the officer.

Warden said they have the opportunity to bring in substance abuse and mental health counselors to talk to the officers in training and give them guidance on the conversations they are having with virtual inmates.

“It’s not about validating the inmate’s concern, but negating it,” Corrections Assistant Superintendent Jon Banville said.

He recalled an instance where all an individual threatening self-harm wanted was to know his upcoming court date. A simple conversation with the inmate led to the revelation and Banville was able to talk him down and change the inmate’s mood.

“We deal with people who have bad days and it’s all about how you interact with them,” Henry added.

The program also has the ability to be shown on a larger screen with a room of cadets and officers watching who can watch the simulation in real time. Then they can critique how they would have handled the situation differently.

The simulations are recorded for this purpose and become another learning tool, Warden said.

Eventually, the corrections department will have a dedicated training room for the deescalation tool in the new municipal building, which is currently under construction.

For now, Henry said it’s become a great learning experience for younger officers used to playing video games and a way for veteran officers to brush up on communications skills.

“This virtual reality has been able to open people’s eyes,” Henry said. “A year from now when we are further in this system, it has a multitude of possibilities for all of law enforcement.”


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