Police Department Tries Out Virtual Reality De-Escalation Training

A screenshot from one of the virtual reality simulations in development at Catapult Games.

A screenshot from one of the virtual reality simulations in development at Catapult Games. Catapult Games

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The department in Schenectady, New York, is working with a local game development company on the program.

The video footage appears from the perspective of a police officer as he taps on the window of a parked car and asks to see the driver’s identification. As the man hands it over, the police officer’s partner suddenly draws his gun and points it into the car.

The first officer now faces an array of choices. Should he tell the man in the car to remain calm? Use his radio to call for backup? Or tell his partner to put away his gun? Each choice has consequences for the escalation, or de-escalation, of the situation—but they’re not life-or-death decisions, and do-overs are allowed. Because the video isn’t body-camera footage—it’s a virtual-reality simulation.

The program, under development by Schenectady, New York-based Catapult Games, is designed to give police realistic training in de-escalation techniques. Using VR headsets and controllers, officers step into simulations and make a series of decisions to determine the outcome of scenarios based on real-world encounters. It’s a more immersive learning experience than traditional methods of de-escalation training, typically based on video and textbook learning, said Dane Jennings, the company’s CEO. 

“With virtual reality, you can frame techniques in a more effective way than a lot of traditional methods, because the user is completely immersed in a virtual world,” Jennings said. “They’re in control of everything they do, and it feels extremely realistic.”

The idea came to Jennings last summer, in the wake of national protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, who died after a white Minneapolis police officer  kneeled on his neck. Jennings reached out to a local community justice nonprofit, which arranged a meeting with Eric Clifford, chief of the Schenectady Police Department. The two agreed to partner on the project, an arrangement that allows police officers to test the program for free in exchange for feedback and suggestions on each simulation.

“I thought it was very intriguing,” Clifford said of the proposal. “If we were able to help him build it, and give input on what we think would be best for police officers to train on, that’d be even better. So we agreed to consult with them on their progress and give feedback as they were building the platform.”

Officials from Catapult began by building a prototype based on videos of police encounters— “things that went wrong and times where it went right,” Jennings said. When that first scenario was finished, police officers played through it and then offered critiques and suggestions, a process that’s since repeated several times as the developers tweak various things in the simulation.

Right now, for example, the developers are adding nuance to the simulation to complicate the in-game decisions.“We’d want to add more gray area in terms of, for example, finding out why your partner is drawing his gun,” Jennings said. “So we’ll add an option for you to ask him, so you’ll have more context into the decision. We are starting to also develop more simulations to get more breadth and depth into what we’re covering. We don’t want it to be one-sided.”

Both Jennings and Clifford hope to involve members of the public in the development process. Originally, the plan was to make the training module available for use at monthly feedback meetings, but that idea has been difficult to schedule due to ongoing restrictions on group gatherings during the pandemic. A growing coalition of community organizations is involved in the project, Jennings said, though he’d like to add more, including groups outside of Schenectady.

“We want to hear everyone’s voice as advisors for helping us craft scenarios and identify the correct response,” Jennings said. “That’s in addition to the feedback from police officers giving us a proper sense of protocol and the type of situations they run into. Our goal is really to make a comprehensive app that encompasses all perspectives.”

Eventually, that could include expanding the simulation itself, Clifford said—giving users the option to train as a police officer, or to experience an interaction as a person on the other side of an encounter with law enforcement.

“The other thing we’re keeping in mind while building this is to build it in a way where we could let the public use it so they could better understand what police officers go through,” he said. “We may want to have an A and a B scenario, where they’re both seeing the same thing, but the actions are different.”

Within six months, Jennings hopes to have a product that could be sold to police departments nationwide. Pricing remains unclear, though it’s likely it would be a subscription model, with regular updates as more scenarios are developed. The program will likely not replace traditional methods of de-escalation training, Clifford said—but it would be a new and useful enhancement.

“Just having more regular exposure to those scenarios is going to be one of the most beneficial things,” he said. “These are incidents that are happening in the community that we need to be prepared for, and that’s part communication, part training, and part exposure to what’s out there. The more we know, the better we can handle things.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: ‘It’s Patchwork’: Rural Teachers Struggle to Connect in Pandemic

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.