This story is part of Deadly Force, a CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada.
A Winnipeg company has created a program to help police experience what it’s like to hear voices in your head to improve how officers respond to people in a mental health crisis.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Sgt. Julio Berzenji of Winnipeg Police Service.
Police officers can now quickly learn what would have otherwise taken months or years to learn through work experience, he said.
“When somebody participates in this kind of training and they hear those voices, it’s like there’s this light bulb that goes on,” said Berzenji.
“This sense of realism, this reality that ‘Oh my gosh… this is what it’s like? This is truly what it’s like for people that are in crisis?'”
A CBC News analysis of police-involved deaths since 2000 found that 70 per cent of those who died had mental health or substance abuse problems.
And police are having increased contact with people in mental health crisis.
That’s one of the reasons Winnipeg-based SetCan, which makes reality-based training products for police and military forces, created SimVoice.
The program is simple. An officer wears wireless headphones connected to the app which runs on any mobile device. The app has a number of pre-programmed scenarios in which voices speak to the person wearing the headphones, who is armed with a knife, gun or bat.
As fellow officers try to de-escalate the situation, the other must comply with the voices.
The trainer can make things easier or harder, depending on how the officers are doing. The voices may become increasingly paranoid of police or they may tell the person to comply.
For the person wearing the headphones, it’s a jarring experience.
“It was very, very difficult because there are so many different voices that are coming through at different tones, at different levels, and telling me to do things that are contradictory to what the officer was telling me to do,” said Const. Justin Casavant, a Winnipeg police officer with 15 years under his belt.
“This gave me a little bit of insight into what that person may be dealing with.”
To replicate the feel of auditory hallucinations, SetCan employee Jonathan Wilson plowed through medical journals and blogs about mental health.
“I researched a lot of first-hand accounts,” he said. “What do people actually hear who have auditory hallucinations?”
The audio includes a wide variety of noise and voices coming from different directions. Some are whispers, others in full voice. Sometimes there are other sounds mixed in, like someone sobbing in the background.
It helps create the “flat affect” — the seemingly emotionless, unaware behaviour sometimes seen in people during a mental health crisis — according to SetCan CEO Jeff Quail, who is also a former police officer.
“[The subject’s] brain is sort of filled with information, so they sort of get this flat affect, and these thousand-yard stares, as they’re commonly referred to,” he said.
Quail hopes wearing the headsets will help officers get better insight into what may be going on behind that flat affect.
“That maybe this is not an individual that is thinking about launching an attack, but maybe this is an individual that is experiencing some sort of psychosis and they’re actually more afraid of us than angry at us.”
Quail developed the program after attending a law enforcement conference four months ago, and made it free to any police force.
“If we can save one life… if we can have officers properly interpret some behaviour differently that leads to good results, then I think we’ve accomplished a lot.”
The Winnipeg Police Service has been one of the first to adopt the program but Quail said more than 100 police forces across North America have expressed interest.
It can be very difficult for officers to make that connection.– Sgt. Julio Berzenji, Winnipeg Police Service
Berzenji, a longtime trainer with the Winnipeg police, believes the program will improve the interactions with people with mental health problems.
“It’s going to provide maybe some more insight into what they’re experiencing, it helps to tap into that empathy, and then ideally, it’s going to make our officers even better communicators,” he said.
But the 16-year veteran said training alone won’t solve the problem, because often, by the time police get involved, the person is already in a crisis state.
“I think a lot more has to be done, kind of on the front end, to prevent individuals entering into that crisis state,” he said. “Because once they’re in that crisis state, I gotta tell you, it can be very difficult for officers to make that connection, and to communicate in a way that allows them to bring that person down.”
SimVoice is one industry-based response to the rise in contacts between those with mental health issues and police, something criminologists say is linked to a lack of resources in communities for those with mental health problems.
Government responses to CBC’s Deadly Force findings have been mixed.
Days before CBC News published its findings, the government of Ontario announced it would develop new de-escalation and use-of-force training for police by this summer.
Manitoba said it will issue a new report this spring that will “highlight opportunities to enhance mental health and addictions services” in the province. It also said it is working with the criminal justice system to “produce better outcomes for individuals that interact with the system.”
B.C. said that it monitors use of force data and, since 2012, has ensured all front-line officers have training in crisis intervention and de-escalation.
Alberta declined comment.
In a statement to CBC, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Ottawa is “committed to evidence-based policy” but stopped short of committing to tracking all police-involved fatalities in a national database.
“It is premature to comment on the possibility of collecting additional national data related to the work of CBC’s Deadly Force investigation. While RCMP tracks this information, there are over 300 other police forces in Canada,” he said in a statement.
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