How a virtual world can improve police training and public perception
Once seen as the purview of gamers, the capabilities of virtual reality tech have increased while the price has decreased
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By Robert Smythe
Our country is in the midst of a national debate on police reform. It is a debate that has unfairly tarnished the character of the many dedicated hard-working officers who make up the majority of the ranks of law enforcement.
My father has served as police chief of the Darby Borough Police Department, located in the inner suburbs of the City of Philadelphia, for over 40 years. That upbringing is part of the reason I first volunteered as a firefighter in my hometown of Springfield 15 years ago. During those years, I have worked closely with members of our local police department responding to many emergency calls.
It is through that lens – combined with my experience as a K-12 educator – that I view the current discussion on policing in America. I see two major challenges facing law enforcement:
- Increasing community education: Law enforcement must better educate the community about the challenges and risks they face daily. The public needs to understand the split-second decision-making required in volatile situations that can result in the death of officers, suspects and innocent bystanders.
- Improving police training: The second challenge is regarding police training, a hot topic in today’s national debate. Training simply for the sake of training is not, in my opinion, the answer. Municipal police officers need new approaches that can better prepare them for the real-world situations they face. At the same time, training programs must address the reality that police departments have limited financial resources.
Virtual reality (VR) technology can be used to address both these issues.
VR tech as a police training tool
Ten years ago, the idea of a police department using VR for training was out of the question due to cost. Since then, VR has technically matured, the costs have come down and the technology has made tremendous inroads in many professions.
Surgeons use it to hone their skills and companies like Exelon use it to train control room employees in nuclear power plants. Exelon not only trains employees in a range of simulated nuclear control room scenarios but can do it far more cost-effectively, without having to build multiple mock control rooms across the country or transport employees to those locations.
Even the military is now a VR supporter. Many who thought VR could never replace live-fire training, have changed their thinking after it was implemented, recognizing its versatility, cost-effectiveness and the speed with which trainees can move through different programs.
I’ve seen that same resistance in some of the first pioneering police departments to adopt VR. When it was introduced at the Darby Borough Police Department, many officers scoffed at the concept. Most had doubts that virtual reality goggles, a prop gun and a computer simulation ‒ what they jokingly referred to as a video game ‒ could help improve their skills.
But once they put on the goggles and the training instructor fired up the program, those notions dissipated. Officers were no longer in the training room of their police department ‒ they were at a vehicle stop, out on the street and in the dark of night.
At first, the experience is bewildering. An individual’s brain almost doesn’t know what to make of the transformation as the simulation seems so real. Perhaps most amazing is how fast an officer’s brain and senses accept the scenario as real. In the back of their mind, they can remember putting on the headset, yet, when a suspect approaches in a threatening manner, their body reacts instinctively as if the threat and stressors are real.
Scenario possibilities are practically limitless, from replicating a domestic abuse call to responding to an active shooter in a school or office, to dealing with the agitated and confused mentally ill. And the skills being practiced and developed are many of those that are under scrutiny today, such as de-escalation, communication techniques and appropriate use of force.
More real than staged simulations
The VR platform’s portability and small footprint initially made it appealing to the Darby Borough Police Department. As a small municipal department with a limited budget, Darby Borough PR found that maintaining consistent training was difficult. Scheduling live simulation training exercises were a challenge – from overtime pay to the civil liability concerns for venues and participants.
In contrast, the portable VR system can be set up in any open, average-size room in about 15 minutes by practically anyone. As a volunteer firefighter who spent weeks setting up live-training sessions, the number of man-hours a VR platform can save is considerable.
But it’s the real-world feeling that the virtual environment creates that is so surprising, even compared to live-simulation training. As a training coordinator, I see first responders who must try to pretend there is an actual fire during live simulation, but as a controlled environment, it falls short. Meanwhile, I have seen officers become so immersed in the realism of the VR environment that they fall forward in the training room when they move to post up on a vehicle that is present in the simulation.
Virtual reality training can never replace real, on-the-job experience, but it certainly feels more “real” than live, staged simulations. Because it creates a raw, visceral response, like a real incident, it demands that the trainee use their skills and technique to override the confusion, over-stimulation and sensory overload they’re presented with.
VR tech as a community education tool
To this point, my father and Darby Borough police chief, also saw an unusual and added benefit of VR’s immersive realism: the ability to put elected officials and residents of the community into the shoes of his police officers. Shortly after purchasing the technology, my father started taking the VR platform to community events and allowed residents to experience what his officers do every day.
The community response was incredible. At first a large number of community members wanted to try the platform because it looked fun. One by one, they quickly realized it was not what they expected. Many of the civilians failed to achieve the goal of the specific scenario. And they failed terribly. A large portion of the community was either killed or made some sort of monumental error in their scenario. But it was what happened after the residents took off the headset ‒ the conversations they had with police officers who were on hand ‒ that I found remarkable. It was obvious civilians had a newfound understanding of what it was like to walk in an officer’s shoes, and what they experienced was very different from what they anticipated.
In America today, we are obsessed with quick and simple solutions to complex issues. As the push for reform in law enforcement continues to grow, law enforcement needs to strive for new and innovative training solutions to better prepare them to meet the evolving challenges officers face. Increasing the training, both in repetitions and realism, while decreasing the logistical and financial hurdles, is one way of achieving the level of safety for both our police and our communities that we are all seeking.
In my father's words: "People who aren't looking at VR for training cops aren't paying attention. When I started in policing, we used to shoot at paper targets, then we tried to make it more realistic and we started shooting at paper targets that moved, then we went to paper targets that move while someone fired a gun over your head at the range. It was all an attempt to give the cops an experience as close to what it's like in real life. But even with moving targets and people shooting over you, it wasn't real enough and it was dangerous and hard to put together. The VR allows us to train cops easily and safely and give them as real an experience as possible. This thing gets your heart pumping."
The public's role in this solution is easier said than done, as it will require the rebuilding and strengthening of the relationship between our police and our communities, but outreach initiatives involving simulation and VR technology are a step in the right direction.
For the Darby Borough Police Department, technology is helping improve officers' abilities while strengthening the department’s relationship with the community.
About the author
Robert Smythe is a captain with the Springfield Fire Department and K-12 educator. Robert’s father is police chief of Darby Borough Police Department in Pennsylvania. For more information on Street Smarts VR, visit https://www.streetsmartsvr.com/.