In the very beginning the law-enforcement arena had a difficult time establishing an effective training program. If you can’t simulate a hot situation, you have to train with real weapons that are made safe, the law enforcement officer doesn’t really feel that the training is real and you have to bring in lots of role players sometimes, often members of the community.
That’s where we were in the 1980s, early ‘90s — using real people. But it wasn’t the real effect. Then in the mid-‘90s some new training came into play that used video scenarios on a big screen and you would have to interact with it (MILO | FATS). These systems were very expensive costing as much as $100,000 and often the scenarios were not very interactive with the law enforcement officer being trained, because the people in the video didn’t respond appropriately to the commands that were being given out
Virtual reality isn’t new. The gaming industry has been using it for years. With the advent of virtual reality goggles, virtual reality training has taken off in military and law enforcement training. Now you’ve got this virtual reality training, and with a smaller investment than the traditional training systems — a pair of goggles and some basic acoustics– the training incident becomes very realistic. It’s so realistic you honestly get scared about the situation you’re in because everything around you is blocked out and you really feel as if you are in the scenario.
When I put the goggles on I felt like I was in a real gun battle.
The technology comes from the gaming industry. The vendors that develop the training programs are all mostly current or previous gamers.
Which is perfect because today’s generation of law enforcement officers grew up gaming. This puts them back into an environment they’re very comfortable with. They’re used to virtual reality games like Call of Duty. This is the next step up. This kind of training is exciting for this generation of law enforcement officers.
Unlike the older training videos that did not block out real life surroundings, like personnel standing around the room and other real life effects that were not part of the training simulation which gave the training a less realistic feel.
When you put goggles on in virtual reality, you can’t see anything but the training scenario and you’re literally ducking when someone is shooting at you.
To demonstrate the effect of the virtual reality on the human body, a scenario makes you walk a steel beam 30 feet in the air and you can’t take a step, even though you know you’re on a solid floor with carpet. The training officers can turn on a fan and you feel that wind as if you were outside. You absolutely cannot take a step.
A training scenario may be a traffic stop. There is a person behind the computer controlling the avatar, so the “person” you pulled over may respond cooperatively or not. The officer in training gives commands and the avatar responds according to the commands given at the direction of the computer operator. It could go peaceful or it could go violent.
The scenarios are set in 360-degree photos of actual locations, such as schools or city halls that you would really respond to. It’s your city hall. It makes the situation very realistic.
And because there’s a human behind the avatar, they can make the avatar react and say things that can very much happen in real life. So it really exposes the officer to some very real life scenarios allowing law enforcement officers to make some very difficult decisions in a controlled environment with constructive feedback on the officer’s actions.
Another positive attribute about virtual reality training is that pretty much any room can transform into a training room. In the past, law enforcement personnel from different district locations had to go to one central location for the training, because the older, traditional training methods required lots of permanently installed training equipment. Now it’s just a matter of taking the goggles along with some supporting audio visual equipment and simulated weapons to wherever the officers are. Today’s virtual reality training equipment is very portable and much easier to set up and break down. You can bring the training on the road, any time, to anywhere on any shift.
Now that I’ve put the goggles on and gone through a couple scenarios, there is no doubt in my mind this will make officers better prepared to respond more effectively and professionally with the many scenarios they deal with on a daily basis. We can see how they will react in a hostile environment without putting them out in the street with a real violent person.
And they’re going to be safer.
If you see in training that an officer will behave inappropriately in any situation, we have the opportunity to correct that then and there.
An agency will have less liability for inappropriate responses also, because management can show that they trained the officer through virtual reality to perform correctly, and that the officer chose to behave differently than how trained.
Because this is emerging technology, we’re not saying what’s out there now is the end product. The vendor community continues to develop and get feedback. As it evolves, for instance, we may find a pitfall of virtual reality training is that people realize the trauma of a shooting incident and decide police work is not for them.
Shootings can be very traumatic. After a real-life officer involved shooting, they’re often traumatized so much that they can’t go back to work.
But with its realism, efficiency and opportunity for immediate correction, virtual reality is the best training officers have ever had.
Eddie Reyes is a retired deputy chief of police from Alexandria, VA, a former deputy chief of police with the Amtrak Police Department and the current chairman of the IACP Communications and Technology Committee. He is a senior law enforcement project manager at the Police Foundation in Washington, DC.