Virtual reality program may empower police to better understand mental illness

New technology including this program may help police, who are often the first responders to interact with someone with a mental illness in a dangerous situation, to have more successful interactions.
8:25 | 06/05/19

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Transcript for Virtual reality program may empower police to better understand mental illness
Reporter: 2017 just outside of Phoenix, Arizona, an officer approaches a 14 year old on suspicion of drug use. The buckeye police department has called the officer an expert, but the teen is not on drugs. Don't go anywhere. Reporter: He has autism. And this encounter is about to take a turn for the worse. I'm okay. Reporter: Minutes later, the boy's aunt arrives. He's doing something with his hands. When you have autism. It's his nerves. Reporter: The police department is defending the actions of the officer, but the young man was allegedly left with scrapes and bruises. The family is suing the officer and the city, in part demanding they institute a mandatory training program to prevent incidents like this in the future. This case is an example of an issue police departments around the country are wrestling with, how to prevent tragic interactions with those with cognitive disabilities or a mental health crisis. At least 25% of police encounters involve someone with a mental illness. After decades of reduced funding for mental health care communities across the country now have a significant number of people who need mental health care and can't get it. So whens they people go into crisis local police are asked to respond to the challenge. For the most part, local police officers haven't been trained and don't have the appropriate resources. Reporter: An officer not having that training is something lanor worries about a lot. Her son has autism, non-verbal and requires round the clock attention. When things go wrong, 911 is her only option. I don't have a team of 20 people to go down the list and say hey, are you in the neighborhood? Reporter: But she knows asking for help from law enforcement could make the situation worse. Nick does not understand verbal commands from many he is not going to respond the way they're going to direct him to respond. He will not stand still. He will not put his hands up, and the fear is, is that if they say halt or I'll shoot, he's not going to listen. And the outcome is that I could lose him. Reporter: To better prepare their officers, Chicago's police department started crisis intervention training in 2004. Still, there was more work to do. Were shots fired by police? Just to confirm. Yes, they were. They were. Reporter: In 2015, a Chicago police officer shoots and kills this 15-year-old whose family says he had mental health issues. That was a teachable moment. When they get into mental health issues they're better able to identify it. Reporter: The officer is fighting that determination. We can have you put the headsets back on. Reporter: They are piloting a new program that uses virtual reality to train for these Dell kwat cat situations. In this exercise, I'm in the shoes of an officer approaching a mental health crisis. I'm given two options for what my character should say, can we talk? Or drop it now. Watch what happens when I choose drop it now, the more aggressive choice. Drop the screwdriver now! Get inside! Reporter: The scene escalates, and my character is given a choice. Taser or firearm. Drawing a weapon at all only further intensifies the situation. This type of hair trigger tension could mean the difference between tragedy and a peaceful outcome. Police officers need to understand that using the same techniques that they are trained to use with the public in general may result in a violent reaction. Reporter: Now watch what happens when I choose "Can we talk". Put that screwdriver down. Reporter: He's much more responsive. So in this case, we selected can we talk. That was the right choice. As far as talking to him first, absolutely. You want to start jury initial assessment. We can calm the situation down and engage with that person productively. Reporter: The program also puts officers in the shoes of the suspect who might be hearing voices in his head. Who sent you here? Are you working for them? Reporter: In another scene we're shown how turning the lights and radio off can make a big difference for someone with autism. Turn the lights off and the radio down. They're experiencing lights and sounds in ways that you are so we want to keep the officers aware. That person's experiencing something else. What may work for one individual may not work here. Reporter: Chicago police say the vr program has allowed them to bring officers up to speed quickly, overcoming one of the obstacles they face in retraining their forces. In a perfect world every front line law enforcement officer would receive training on how to deal with individuals who are in the midst of a mental health crisis or developmentally disabled. It required money and time. Reporter: Here in this long Island, New York emergency call center, first responders are using another new technology to reduce tragic outcomes. A free app called smart 911. Regular phone lines come up with the black icon and telephone where the smart profiles will pop with a green indicator. So it's giving the telecommunication operator a visual look instantly. Reporter: Smart 911 allows users to enter personalized information about their family, including medical conditions, photographs and special conditions for accessing the home. It allows us to create a profile of information that you are choosing to share in a secure, encrypted fashion that travels with you throughout the entire country. Reporter: Joel Vetter says he pushed his county to use the system. Smart 911 provides for me to have more of a solid sleep knowing that my family, my home and my community is protected with the application. Reporter: It turns out, lanor lives in the county where he has helped implement smart 911. So she's signing up. The sooner we get her enrolled the sooner we can benefit from it. Reporter: She says she feels like for the most part she can keep her son Nick safe at home. We've called 911 on a number of occasions over the last 20 they have been amazing in their response to the home. They've been here often enough they kind of know Nick. Reporter: But she says she fears what could happen when Nick leaves the house. Something happens to me, he's unsupported. Someone's going to call 911, there's an accident. But they don't know him. I can't advocate for him. Why is that guy fleeing the scene. Did he do something? Stop or we'll shoot. That's when you wake up cold in a nightmare, because I know he can't stop. Reporter: With this new service, lanor's information will come up and alert first responders to his needs if she has to call using smart 911. If there were a way we were out and they would have information on him, game changer, game changer. That would help me sleep at night. Reporter: For "Nightline," gio Benitez in Chicago.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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