Hundreds of centers across the US are using virtual reality to train officers to shoot more accurately – and also help them to decide whether to shoot at all
When I arrived, two women sitting in a hot tub asked me what I was doing in their backyard. I wasn’t quite sure myself. “I’m just here because I heard it was a little loud and I’m seeing if you could keep it down.”
In the corner of my eye, a tall man lumbered toward me from inside the house, swinging a bottle. I asked him once, then twice, to put down the threatening object.
Which is when things really started to escalate. Fumbling with my pepper spray, I hadn’t been looking at the women, who continued shouting. Before I knew what was happening, one had shot me.
Except that she hadn’t. Because all of this had happened inside a virtual reality system used to train police officers in Morristown, New Jersey. Wrapped inside the five screens of the VirTra 300 system, I was staring at my sore hip, replica pepper spray in hand and replica gun in my holster.
Police could lose public funds if officers aren’t trained to best avoid shootings
“You dealt with that better than most,” Sgt Paul Carifi told me, from behind his control screen. He was referring not to my poor communication skills, but my ability to endure the small electrical shock device attached my hip. When shot, the device shocks officers to add realistic stress. “I’ve seen some guys up here who are on the ground sweating when that thing goes off.”
Carifi trains New Jersey recruits and officers at the Morris County Public Safety Training Academy, one of hundreds of centers across the country using virtual reality not simply to train officers how to shoot more accurately but to help them to decide whether to shoot at all.
As the methods used to train officers in making lethal force decisions have come under increased scrutiny from activists and legislators, police departments have started to consider alternative approaches to training officers, including virtual reality. In the last year, the training company VirTra, whose simulators are used by hundreds of cities and multiple federal agencies, has seen an increase in sales.
Unlike training with paintballs or at shooting ranges, systems like VirTra 300 work by allowing experienced trainers to manipulate one hundred branching, interactive encounters that they can escalate or de-escalate depending on how the officers behave. Carifi showed me how, if I had successfully talked the liquor bottle-wielding man down, instead of aggravating him and his friends, I could have avoided getting shot – and returning fire.
Police have been using training simulators for target practice since the advent of 16mm film, but only recently have simulations for officer training been designed to avoid shooting altogether.
In March, lawmakers in Utah passed a bill that explicitly authorizes the attorney general to fund and support a statewide virtual reality training center for use of force and de-escalation policies for agencies across the region.
When Ken Wallentine, the director of the attorney general’s training center, started out in law enforcement 30 years ago, he and fellow recruits entered the field after only four days of training. Even when police academies started using flatscreen technology to train people in firearm handling, he recalled, the emphasis was still on using force. “It would be more accurate to say that those early systems were virtual reality shooting ranges,” explained Wallentine. “The evolution has come in applying virtual reality so that officers can resolve scenarios without taking their weapon out of the holster.”
Several studies have shown that virtual reality simulations are more effective at training officers than classroom settings. “The interesting part about virtual reality is that you can design it for scenarios where officers in the past have failed, and you can give other officers the benefit of having been there before so that they can succeed,” said Richard Wright, a 26-year police veteran who has authored one of the few studies on the effects of training police recruits with simulators.
Realism also helps. The wrap-around screens, Booth said, forced his officers to engage their peripheral vision and remain aware of their surroundings – or risk getting shot by surprise. Teams of former state and federal law enforcement agents contribute to designing realistic scenarios based on patterns of experiences, as well as actual after-incident reports. “I always say we can look at these simulators like a time machine. You can go back and redo these incidents,” said Robert McCue, general manager of the virtual reality training company Milo. “In a simulator, they have second chances. Out on the street, they don’t.”
Some policing experts are not so sure. Amid hefty price tags and limited research on the devices’ long-term effects, these experts raise concerns that hi-def virtual reality simulations may divert funding from other low-tech methods for reducing officer shootings, such as mandating use-of-force policies, expanding the number of unarmed mental health officials, and prosecutorial reform.
Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the ACLU, explained that the ultimate impact of virtual reality training would depend less on the technology itself and more on “how it’s used and the outlines of the policies, procedures, and programs that are put on top of it”. “Are these simulations going to be racially biased?” he asked. “How are these programs set up? Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?”
Where a decade ago, routine bank robberies constituted a large part of some training programs, departments now request scenarios for mentally ill sensitivity training. “In the past, it was very clearly demarcated who was the good guy and bad guy,” McCue said. “Now it’s not as clear cut as it used to be. It’s not cops and robbers.”
The Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale, who studies policing practices, finds the underlying training philosophy “problematic”, regardless of the scenarios deployed. “The problem is not the technology per se, but the mindset that drives the training in the first place,” he explained. His own experience trying a virtual reality simulator left him in a defensive, litigious mindset, as opposed to “a guardian mindset where the use of force would represent a profound failure”.
Certainly getting shocked by Virtra’s patented electrical device was unpleasant – so much so that I wanted to avoid it happening again. But it was unclear whether that would eventually help me to better learn de-escalation tactics or simply make me trigger-happy. After my first shock, I responded to a dispatcher’s call about two young teenagers spraying graffiti with my handgun drawn, until Carifi kindly reminded me to put it away.
When I entered the graffiti scenario for a second time, I spent a few minutes arguing with one of the boys to take his hand out of his jacket, where he seemed to be concealing an object. Eventually I succeeded; the sullen teen dropped the object he was holding – it turned out to be a spray can – and got on to his knees. But it could have been otherwise. Carifi showed me an alternative version of the scenario, where the teen’s hidden object was a handgun that he would use to shoot me multiple times. Had I continued to hold the pepper spray with my dominant hand, Carifi pointed out, I wouldn’t have been able to pull my gun out. Even in a successfully de-escalated encounter, the lesson – vigilance – was clear.
Whether such virtual training will reduce force in real-world encounters remains an open question. Experts caution that technological transformations in training must be accompanied by legal and social reforms. “In the real world,” Vitale said, “there’s still very little downside for shooting someone.