POLICE DEPARTMENTS across the country are starting to wonder whether the training techniques and assumptions that have guided them for decades are inadequate and flawed, and whether modern tools and technology might improve matters. An assessment is long overdue.
The questions have arisen partly in response to unwarranted police shootings and killings, as well as to the jittery, violent handling of protests and riots in some places, especially Ferguson, Mo. Intriguing and increasingly affordable new methods, some of them taking advantage of rapid advances in virtual-reality technology, are also leading some departments to examine alternatives that may improve performance and preparation for rookie officers and veterans alike.
For many years, hidebound law enforcement agencies have used simulators mainly to aid police in shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, the idea being to stop the bad guy and spare the woman who darts from behind a door carrying a baby.
Those are useful tools as far as they go. But new technology can hone officers’ skills in a much broader array of potential situations, ranging from domestic disputes to the control of unruly and violent crowds. For officers suddenly confronted with a real riot for the first time, it can be helpful to have had practice handling one virtually.
That’s now not only possible but also relatively easy and cheap to do. New high-tech goggles that provide the sights and sounds of 360-degree immersion can put users in the midst of any number of tense scenes, giving them an idea of what to expect and how to react effectively while managing stress. That would complement the traditional emphasis in many training programs, which hammer home the message that policing is highly dangerous work.
Virtual-reality tools can also foster empathy and spotlight implicit racial bias, notions that some departments may have scoffed at in the past but that more forward-looking ones are now embracing. By donning a headset, a middle-aged white officer can see himself in a virtual mirror as a young African American man. In that guise, he can sit in the driver’s seat of an idling car as a nervous or agitated officer approaches. Officers can also rehearse street encounters with mentally ill individuals.
“Just because you’re a cop doesn’t mean you can handle anything without overreacting,” said Jim Bueermann, the retired chief of the police department in Redlands, Calif., who now leads the Police Foundation, which advocates for innovative approaches to policing. “You could use this for protection training or use-of-force training, to run [trainees] through multiple options.”
A growing number of states and localities are embracing such tools. In Utah, lawmakers this year approved funds for a training center with virtual-reality technology that would expand training in de-escalation techniques. Officers from smaller, rural police forces around the state, which otherwise could not afford such equipment, would be included in the training.
Even as the price of training technology drops, state and local governments are spending hundreds of millions of dollars settling lawsuits that arise from police missteps. Better and more innovative training techniques may be highly cost-effective. They are also almost certain to be a tonic for escalating tensions between police and the communities they protect.