“The officers did feel the training prevented them from using deadly force,” Sgt. Joseph Cupo, who oversees training for the Inglewood Police Department, said of the June 2020 incident, weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis launched a national conversation on public safety. “It gave them the knowledge to recognize the event for what it potentially could be, and to go through some alternative methods to bring it to resolution.”
At a time when police use of force is increasingly under scrutiny, experts say training simulations are a key way to reduce the number of times police fire their weapons. There are a variety of role-playing options and a growing body of evidence that they work. Some use live actors, others project videotaped scenarios on screens that wrap around the room. A few places, including a laboratory at the University of Maryland, helped design virtual reality headsets that surround officers with videos or computer-generated images, like in a video game.
Experts say each approach can be valuable so long as it feels realistic. The key is that the officer isn’t just learning de-escalation skills in a classroom but is acting them out, over and over, until they become second nature.
“Giving police officers the ability to practice these scenarios, particularly when they’re very young in their careers, is really important,” said Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor who heads up the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Both he and Robin Engel, a criminal justice professor at the University of Cincinnati, noted that police officers generally spend far less time on de-escalation training than on firearms practice, even though the vast majority of police interactions involve unarmed civilians.
Engel began researching de-escalation training in 2018. She’d been asked to find ways to improve accountability in the campus police department at her university, where an officer had recently shot an unarmed Black man during a traffic stop.
She found that in nearby Louisville, de-escalation training created by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum corresponded to a 28 percent reduction in officer use-of-force incidents, a 26 percent reduction in citizen injuries and a 36 percent reduction in officer injuries.
The training is aimed at defusing tense situations officers may encounter on patrol, Engel said. It does not address higher-risk scenarios like the raid in Louisville that led to the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman whose boyfriend exchanged gunfire with police.
But proponents say it helps police develop alternative, nonlethal responses to situations where a person is acting erratically or threatening to use force.
In Newark, officers did not fire a single shot on duty last year, which Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara said is at least partly because of training in which community volunteers assist in scenario-based instruction.
In Camden, N.J., officers haven’t fired a lethal weapon in the line of duty since 2017, and complaints for excessive use of force have dropped from 44 in 2015 to five last year. Again, officials say simulation training played a role.
The Camden County Police Department sometimes has officers wear heart monitors while they train in de-escalation and conflict resolution, and supervisors keep tabs on whether the officers’ voices become louder or crack from anxiety, how they move their bodies, what they’re doing with their hands and whether they’re perspiring. The agency also reviews body-camera footage as “game film,” department spokesman Dan Keashen said, to show officers what they did right and wrong.
“I can tell you, it absolutely works — 100 percent,” Keashen said.
The more realistic the scenario, the more prepared officers will be. The question is, which technology gives the most realistic experience? Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, touts the model that group created, which is called Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics and uses live actors who respond to the officers in the moment. But he acknowledged that type of training was more labor-intensive and costly than systems that rely on technology.
Some companies, like VirTra, project taped scenarios on screens around the room. A supervisor or trainer can act like a puppeteer, choosing how those on screen respond to whatever action the officer takes.
Axon, the creator of the Taser, offers a virtual-reality headset in which actors play out fraught scenarios and the trainee makes choices, such as whether to use a Taser, chemical spray or a gun to keep a man in mental distress at bay. The subject responds accordingly.
Rick Wall, a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain who now runs de-escalation trainings, prefers live actors but said using them for role-play is cost prohibitive for all but the biggest departments. And more than half of fatal police shootings occur in jurisdictions with fewer than 50,000 residents, according to a 2018 study in the Annual Review of Criminology.
“That’s why a lot of agencies are moving toward the virtual reality,” Wall said. “It works, and it’s less expensive.”
Matthew Griffin, a former police officer who now trains for Axon, recalled sitting through 40 hours of desk-based in-service training a year while he wore the badge. Officers learned things like how to identify whether a person they were interacting with might have autism, schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease.
But he thinks simulations are far more effective. In Axon’s virtual-reality scenarios, for example, officers can act as a person with autism or schizophrenia interacting with police, and then switch back to the officer’s role. Griffin said such training leaves officers better able to recognize the cognitive or mental health issues they may be confronting on the job.
Most virtual-reality simulations require a trainer or the officer to press a button to get the subject in the video to respond to a particular action. But Jigsaw, the technology incubator for tech giant Google, has created a program called Trainer that uses artificial intelligence, based on data gathered from law enforcement and civil rights groups, to prompt actions and responses.
Every time officers put on a headset, their experience is different. The scenarios offer hundreds of potential outcomes — albeit with avatars that do not appear completely human, a technological limitation that experts say can prevent the user from becoming completely immersed in the scene.
Axon expects to upgrade its virtual-reality headsets next year to include similar artificial intelligence direction.
On a recent day at the University of Maryland lab in College Park, researcher Connor Powelson put on a virtual-reality headset and was transported to the driver’s seat of a police car, making a traffic stop in a working-class neighborhood.
Powelson, who is White, walked up to the driver, who is Black, and said, “My name is Officer Powelson. I stopped you because you ran a stop sign back there.”
As he asked for the license and registration, a woman across the street began recording the interaction with her cellphone and yelled, “Leave the poor kid alone!”
The officer turned. “Ma’am, you’re allowed to film, but I need you to stay over there.”
The situation felt a little tense, like anything could happen.
But there also were some glitches, including prolonged delays where the driver wasn’t saying anything, or moments when the simulated dialogue didn’t make sense.
Ray, the sociology professor, said the slow Internet connection in the basement lab was partly culpable. Overall, he said, officers who have reviewed the system found it “slightly more realistic” than other training simulations they have seen.
The technology gives trainers a checklist to use as officers run through the scenarios. The trainers can bookmark spots in the video where the officer completed a task properly, or failed to do so, then play the video again and discuss what to do differently.
Jigsaw has given the technology to researchers at four universities — the University of Maryland, University of Cincinnati, Georgetown University Law Center and Morehouse College. All plan to test it on police.