Law enforcement encounter a variety of individuals during their careers. While substance use and mental illness are discussed and trained for, there are also certain medical conditions and diseases that can affect normal communication. These conditions and diseases must also be taught to officers to prepare them to help any and every individual in their community.
For example, neurocognitive disorders (NCD’s) affect memory, understanding, task performance and much more1. The most overwhelmingly common NCD is Alzheimer’s Disease, and in the past all NCD’s were classified as dementia, when in fact there are multiple types and levels. NCD’s are typically associated with the elderly since it is most prevalent in people 65 years of age are older, but it is not exclusive to this age group.
The way NCD’s work is by causing damage to brain cells. The damage gradually makes symptoms more and more noticeable over time. Sometimes it is not immediately apparent that someone has an NCD – at times it takes a few moments for signs to appear. In general, symptoms law enforcement officers may notice and want to look out for include:
Some of these symptoms do not always reflect Alzheimer’s or other similar diseases, but also traumatic brain injury or substance abuse. Law enforcement officers must also be aware that those with NCD’s have the possibility of becoming verbally or physically aggressive.
Officers can strategically communicate with those who have NCD’s by doing the following2:
‘Neurocognitive Disorders’ is a section of VirTra’s “Mental Illness” curriculum. With a 12-page instructor guide, slideshow presentation and testing materials, law enforcement instructors can familiarize trainees with dementia and NCD’s. The coursework is designed to be used alongside simulated scenarios to allow ‘learning by doing.’
The entire “Mental Illness” set of V-VICTA® curriculum contains 15 hours of detailed coursework certified by IADLEST. To learn about how V-VICTA can be incorporated into your department’s training, contact a specialist.
As science discovers more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it becomes clearer how to communicate with autistic individuals. Because of a lack of knowledge of their unique communication needs, there have been unfortunate events in the past involving police officers and the autistic community. To reduce these incidents and ensure trust between the autistic community and law enforcement, steps have been taken to educate officers.
Law enforcement agencies around the United States are beginning to take advantage of various educational resources to understand ASD. One of the methods is through VirTra’s V-VICTA™ curriculum titled “Autism Awareness.” This 2-hour course — a collaboration between VirTra and Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) — includes scenarios and video walkthroughs. The goal is teaching law enforcement officers how to recognize the signs of autism and communicate appropriately.
An example of a successful approach was done by Utah Attorney General’s Office (UAG), who inspired Utah agencies to adopt the Autism Awareness training program. They have recently won the Best of State award for their Virtual Reality Training Center and the lessons officers learn from it – from Autism Awareness to de-escalation and use-of-force tactics. The framed award is pictured below.
Additionally, in September 2021, UAG Sean Reyes was awarded with the First Annual Autism Award for their efforts in making the community a safer place. As its name suggests, it was the first award of its kind and was awarded to UAG due to the impact they have made in educating law enforcement members about autism.
Some of the tips that officers can learn through VirTra’s Autism Awareness coursework includes recognizing the signs, making sure communication is clear and ensuring the person is comfortable during the encounter. It is no question that law enforcement around the country want to create a good relationship with the public, including those with special needs. Using the coursework’s tests, training manual, presentations and more, the goal is to maintain trust with the community.
To learn more about how VirTra can help law enforcement better understand ASD, contact a product specialist.
How a person learns evolves over time, yet simultaneously stays the same. Learning is also complicated, yet one of the simplest concepts to understand. And though learning is both easy and difficult, it is up to instructors to understand its nuances and create the best learning environment for their trainees.
In creating the best learning environment, instructors can rely on the social learning theory described by Albert Bandura. It describes how people learn socially through observing, modeling, then imitating the behavior and reactions of those around us. Or simply: monkey see, monkey do. It can also be from the perspective, “Don’t do what that monkey did!”
For a moment, think of a child. How do they learn how to act, move, communicate, the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs,’ and the rules of life? It is all learned through observation. Children follow their models, which often begins with parents and siblings and later branches out to friends, teachers, book and TV characters and so forth. After observation comes action, where children mimic the learned behaviors. Depending on if the behavior is met with a punishment or a reward, the behavior is then reinforced or discarded.
As children grow up, so does their form of learning. Now, observational learning comes with an extra step: thought before action. This new consideration helps people to improve themselves, as they think through possible outcomes rather than immediately imitating a presented behavior. After determining and performing the best course of action, they then become a model for others—bringing the social learning theory full circle.
While officers are full-grown adults, and not the children in this example, social learning theory still applies to training. Starting at the beginning, the V-VICTA™ curriculum my team and I create heavily promotes observation. It is recommended to have one officer complete a skill drill or training scenario with the rest of the class watching using a rubric for evaluation. Depending on how the first officer performed, those watching know which actions are important, which actions to mimic, which to avoid and overall, how to create a better outcome. While the first few officers may stumble and err, the remaining officers improve techniques and together everyone learns. This allows for larger numbers of officers to obtain high quality training with great time management.
Throughout this training, instructors act as the ‘parents’ or the ‘prime’, so to speak. It is the instructor’s job to reward positive actions or ‘punish’ potentially dangerous actions—either praising the behavior, describing the error in debrief or immediately providing a real-life consequence, such as an electric shock delivered by a Threat-Fire® device. Training after this manner helps reinforce correct training and make these lessons second-nature once officers are in the field.
Learning can be either complicated or simple; it all depends on how instructors approach the task. Creating an environment that places a heavier emphasis on observation before performing—our earliest form of learning—could be the greatest asset in your classroom.
Lon Bartel spent 20 years as an officer, where he spent 12 of those years as a Rangemaster and 18 years as a certified law enforcement trainer. Now, as an IADLEST Nationally Certified Instructor and Force Science certified Use of Force Analyst and Advanced Specialist, Lon works to create powerful training curriculum for law enforcement.
Bandura, Albert. “Social-Learning Theory of Identificatory Processes.” Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research, Rand McNally & Company, 1969.
McLeod, S. A. (2016, February 05). Bandura – social learning theory. Simply Psychology.
Training should be challenging. Period.
Easy training does not teach individuals, it does not force them to learn, grow, mess up and learn from mistakes. Instead, training needs to be as challenging as it is encompassing of many different topics. For police, this includes a wider variety of topics and the important nature of these subjects.
One critical lesson is verbal de-escalation.
Verbal de-escalation is more complex than the public may imagine, as it is considerably more than simply asking subjects if they are okay, how they can help or if they are willing to remain calm. Instead, the correct dialogue depends on the situation, subject, the subject’s state of mind and even the tone the officer uses.
Tone is an important part of verbal de-escalation, though it isn’t discussed much. Imagine a situation where a subject is debating whether or not to end their life by jumping off a bridge. As the first responder, it is your job to talk them down—literally and figuratively.
What an officer chooses to say is magnified by the tone they use. In this situation, if an officer injected heavy amounts of false sympathy in their voice, the suicidal subject might see this as mistrust or mockery. Or if an officer used the proper phrases with little to no feeling, the subject could interpret it as sarcasm or lack of concern. Tone can greatly improve a situation or cause it to devolve—fast.
This is where VirTra’s training simulators make a difference in the classroom. Instructors can program the simulator to run scenarios ranging from high-stake situations to mental illness interactions. Trainees can engage the subjects and attempt to defuse the situation using known de-escalation techniques, or opt for less lethal or lethal options as a last resort.
If an officer is attempting to build a rapport with the subject, instructors can choose to reward the student’s behavior and de-escalate the scenario. However, if an officer’s words or tone are too aggressive, the instructor can choose an escalating branch built within the scenario to show the trainee the consequences.
An officer’s verbal ability is another tool on their toolbelt and can mean the difference between having to fight a subject or talking him into a set of handcuffs peacefully. By training your department in proper de-escalation techniques with VirTra you can potentially decrease police use of force incidents.
If you have any questions or would like a demonstration, contact a VirTra representative.
Law enforcement officers encounter individuals from all walks of life, sometimes all within a single day. Officers are instructed to keep diversity in mind, which includes physical and mental diversity. To help prepare and educate officers, VirTra created V-VICTA—Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy “Mental Illness Training: A Practical Approach.” This curriculum covers multiple mental illnesses and disorders officers need to be conscious of, including:
• Substance use
• Traumatic Brain Injury
While officers are not trained to diagnose disorders, this valuable knowledge provides the ability to recognize symptoms, helping the officer know how to deploy the correct communication techniques. In addition to symptom awareness, there are a few critical ways officers can help those they encounter, even with emotionally disturbed persons (EDP). These include: breaking stigmas, showing sympathy and knowing when to stage medical personnel. By doing so, officers increase the probability of these encounters ending on a positive note.
As with any group seen as ‘different’, there are stereotypes and stigmas that surround mental illness. The first is how these individuals may be thought of as slow or dull. Being diagnosed with a mental disability, illness or other deficiency does not equate to a lack of intelligence. While communication may need to be altered to increase understanding, these individuals are often very bright.
Another misconception relates to depression and suicidality. Many believe saying “suicide” or “ending your life” to a depressed and possibly suicidal person could put the idea into their head. However, the only way to find out if a person is considering suicide is to ask them, and people who openly discuss it may be reaching out for help.
Finally, the most harmful stigma is the swift assumption that mental disabilities leave a person prone to violence. Due to media coverage, certain illnesses such as schizophrenia are thought to cause subjects to behave unpredictably and sometimes violently. While certain sub-groups can exhibit violent behavior, it is not considered a common demeanor.1
It is important to respond to subjects’ concerns with a level of understanding to ensure they feel valid. Be cautious when saying you “understand” what a person is going through, as it may be inadvertently inflammatory.2 By providing a listening ear and suggesting to get help, you may provide a solution instead.
A critical part of being sympathetic is not minimizing what the subject is going through. Do not imply that they are weak, not trying hard enough, etc. Even if a person is hallucinating, telling that individual what they are experiencing is “not real” will invalidate their experience.
If a mentally ill person is in distress, it may be beneficial to stage medical personnel nearby should they need to be treated, evaluated or transported to a hospital. Remember: law enforcement’s job is not to diagnose. Recognizing symptoms and being familiar with symptoms is crucial to providing effective intervention, but should not be confused with a proper mental evaluation.
There are a few ways officers can help de-escalate a situation if it appears to be out of control.3, 4
• Speak in a low, calm voice
• Listen with empathy
• Respond to some aspects of communication with understanding
• Be clear but non-confrontational
• Use active listening skills
To take a deeper dive into this curriculum and to learn how your department can benefit from these training topics, contact a VirTra specialist here.