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Transformation through collaboration: Connections for a shared world
Innovation Issue 37: Fall 2022

Improving police response to mental health crises through immersive simulation training

In Our Community

Improving police response to mental health crises through immersive simulation training

Two police officers stand in a room, both wearing face masks. One police officer wears a VR headset branded with a Dark Slope company logo.

Officers participate in virtual reality-based simulation training that aims to improve police response to mental health crises. Photo courtesy of Natalie Álvarez. 

Police officers are improving their ability to respond to and de-escalate mental health crisis situations using immersive, scenario-based simulation training developed by a Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) researcher and her collaborators, an ongoing project that has recently expanded to include the option to deliver training via virtual reality (VR).

School of Performance professor Natalie Álvarez is the principal investigator of an extensive collaborative effort to research, develop and validate simulation training to improve police response to mental health crises. Along with her co-investigators, Wilfred Laurier University criminology and psychology professor Jennifer Lavoie and University of Victoria theatre professor Yasmine Kandil, they assembled a team of community stakeholders who ranged from people who live with mental health challenges, to de-escalation experts, to Indigenous cultural safety specialists, to nurses, clinicians, artists, actors and more. After receiving funding in 2017, they developed live-action immersive scenarios, which the team has recently translated into a VR simulation version of the training that is being used around Ontario. 

“What was most satisfying was having all those different stakeholders at the table to develop an evaluation framework for de-escalation,” said professor Álvarez, who is The Creative School’s Associate Dean, Scholarly, Research and Creative Activities. In addition to the evaluation framework, the team created eight scenarios to increase police officers’ competencies when responding to crises, such as self-harm or suicidal behaviour, psychosis or extreme distress. Prior to launching this scenario-training project, professor Álvarez researched immersive simulation training, including the military’s use of the technique, for her award-winning book Immersions in Cultural Difference, and she was interested in how the technique translated into policing contexts. She adds that it is often taken for granted or assumed that such training works. One of the points that sets this collaborative research apart is the team’s development of an evidence-based curriculum.  

While initially developed to be delivered by live actors, the training scenarios have evolved to include VR simulation options. This shift allows the researchers to more easily deliver standardized training across a large region like Ontario. Professor Álvarez is co-leading the team migrating the curriculum to VR, a project led by professor Lavoie. Eleven police services have now been trained to use the VR curriculum created from this research with more organizations expected to come onboard. 

“We quickly discovered that virtual reality might be the solution to scaling this curriculum, so we partnered with a Toronto firm named Lumeto,” said professor Álvarez, noting the team worked with her fellow TMU professors Richard Lachman from The Creative School and Naimul Khan from the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science on the VR project. As a performance studies researcher, professor Álvarez thought nothing could compare to the empathy a live actor can elicit, but she has been surprised by the impact of the 360-degree immersive qualities offered by VR. She observes how it allows participants the opportunity to think of their physical positioning during the simulation in a way that “notional set pieces” do not. “VR lends itself so effectively to those conversations about how to use the environment to set the table for safe and effective de-escalation,” she said.

Professor Álvarez and her colleagues first started discussing the idea in light of Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé’s 2016 report, A Matter of Life and Death, written in the wake of teenager Sammy Yatim’s death in 2013. A recommendation in that report called for standardized and mandatory de-escalation training for police across the province, noting that at the time, scenario training for law enforcement tended to focus on use-of-force training rather than de-escalation. 

A police officer wears a Dark Slope branded VR headset and is using two handheld VR controllers.

VR lends itself so effectively to those conversations about how to use the environment to set the table for safe de-escalation.


Read more about this research in a co-authored article “Developing Community Co-designed Scenario-based Training for Police Mental Health Crisis Response: A Relational Policing Approach to De-escalation (external link, opens in new window) ”, published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology

This research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.