May 18, 2024

FAIRFIELD — When an officer puts on a virtual reality headset and runs through scenarios that teach them on how to de-escalate tense situations, that training comes — at least partially — because of the work of Sgt. Michael Stahl.

Stahl has spent much of the past decade working to bring new systems and technology to the Fairfield Police Department, and wasrecently given an award from the Southern Connecticut Chapter of the American Society for Industrial Security. The award was for “innovations and forward thinking abilities in technology and advancements in policing.”

“It’s always great to be recognized,” he said, later adding he hates being in the limelight. “It’s rewarding when you are recognized by your department, your superiors, your town for doing these things. But, at the same time, I don’t see it as going above and beyond. I see it as doing my job.”

Stahl said he moved from patrol to administrative work a few years ago and started to look at how the department could improve by implementing new programs and technology.

Most recently, Stahl said, that involved putting together a proposal to get new equipment like Tasers, body cameras and virtual reality equipment that helps with training on escalation.

“A whole slew of products and packages from Axon Enterprises,” he said. “The town was actually able to use (American Rescue Plan Act) funding. For the next 10 years, we actually have all this equipment that’s going to not only benefit our officers, but the community as well.”

Stahl said a lot of that equipment will help the department improve transparency and public trust.

Officers use a VR headset with an inert Taser and firearm that they can practice with in scenarios that center on empathy and de-escalation. He said Axon frequently refreshes the scenarios offered to provide a variety of situations.

About eight years ago, Stahl worked with Fairfield University to create the Safe Return program, which is essentially a database the department has that collects information on people prone to wandering.

Stahl said the database contains information on people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s or autism and allows officers and dispatchers to access information and photos that will help them more quickly and efficiently identify someone. It also includes people’s interests, hobbies, places they like to go to, as well as things they are averse to or safety concerns.

“Stuff that is just going to help us not only locate them, but also handle the location once we do,” he said.

He said he came up with the idea after an incident when he was on patrol in 2012, where he and a fellow officer found a teenager with autism who was non-verbal in the middle of the night.

“He was not wearing any shoes or socks. He was sopping wet. Come to find out, he had taken a dip in the Sound,” Stahl said. “It was in the Southport area of town. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t write to us. To ensure his safety, we were left with no choice but to send him to the hospital.”

Stahl said they had to wait for a frantic call from the teenager’s mother in the morning. From that call, he said, the department decided it needed a system in place for that type of scenario.

“I went to Fairfield U for my undergrad, so I was able to use some of the relationships I had there to get a partnership with their software engineering school,” he said. “A professor there made it a capstone project for two of his senior students. That program was put into place shortly thereafter.”

He said it has been used numerous times since.

Stahl said there are many ways technology can be used to make officers more efficient at their jobs.

“There’s just so many opportunities out there, and it’s just a matter of having that forward thinking to seek them out, find the funding for them, implement them and provide the training,” he said. “An important part of policing nowadays is always looking for that next step.”

Stahl said he will continue looking for innovations that help the department, adding the goal and mentality of the Fairfield Police Department is recognizing needs and working to find solutions that create progress.

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