Connecticut police use virtual reality to train officers in de-escalation tactics

Connecticut police use virtual reality to train officers in de-escalation tactics

By Taylor Hartz
Hartford Current

NEW LONDON, Conn. – For anyone watching, New London Police Officer Daquan Stuckey was staring at a white tiled floor in a nearly empty room. But before his eyes, which were covered by bulky, dark virtual reality goggles, was the scene of a call for domestic violence in a couple’s apartment.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Stuckey said, apparently to no one, into a microphone attached to headphones that fit snugly over his ears. On a screen in front of him, viewers saw nothing more than a graphic of a floating head and the outline of a man believed to be someone involved in a domestic violence call.

New London police officers Daquan Stuckey (left) and Christina Nocito take part in a training simulation using the department's new Apex Officer virtual reality system.

New London police officers Daquan Stuckey (left) and Christina Nocito take part in a training simulation using the department’s new Apex Officer virtual reality system. (Taylor Hartz/Hartford Courant)

A room away, another officer clicked a computer mouse intensely, staring at a screen that allowed him to choose from prompts such as “draw weapon” and “attack.”

He was speaking to Stuckey not as a fellow officer, but as a character, guiding Stuckey through the department’s new training tool, the Apex Officer virtual reality training simulator.

New London police are the first in Connecticut to get their hands on the new Apex Officer trainer, which gives officers full control over a variety of simulated scenarios to help them train in real time for things they might be faced in service. The 360-degree simulation fully immerses officers in a scene they might react to in real life, such as a car accident or an argument in an apartment or an alley.

The department purchased the system with a grant from the Department of Justice. Because he’s the first in the state to use the system, it’s been reduced from its nearly $100,000 price tag to around $62,500 with additional upgrades like imitation Tasers.

Sights and sounds, including dialogue and props placed in the virtual space ranging from guns to beer cans, are all controlled by officers running the simulation as they guide their colleagues through a call . Just like in real life, agents don’t know what they’re getting into when they put on their glasses and “go dark.”

Although New London Police Department Chief Brian Wright said the benefits of the new Apex program are limitless, its primary goal is to train officers in de-escalation tactics in scenarios that feel real, so they be as prepared as possible when they are real.

Wright acknowledged that as emergency responders, police often interact with citizens on the worst day of their lives when emotions are running high. His goal is to teach his officers to empathize with them and develop a relationship that helps keep everyone safe.

“At the end of the day, everyone is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, niece, nephew,” Wright said. “It is important that we do everything we can to hone our skills to ensure that everyone involved in an incident walks away, continues to see another day and has another opportunity to reinvent themselves and come out and to do good.”

sergeant. Matt Cassiere stated that although the system looks like a video game, they intend to emphasize that it is not a game; it is a tool that complements other ongoing training and is always followed by a debriefing session where agents receive feedback and reflect on the improvements they could make.

“There are a hundred thousand things that could happen in any situation,” Cassiere said. And with this system, they can train for many of them.

No real weapons are allowed in the room while officers are using the simulator, but officers are “armed” with imitation Tasers and handguns that they can “deploy” if the situation calls for it. The purpose of the practices is to connect with subjects on a call and hopefully avoid the deployment of any force.

The system helps officers test nonviolent strategies, try new ways to achieve voluntary compliance, and improve decision-making.

When an agent puts on their glasses, they are thrust into a new environment where they must first understand where they are, who they are talking to, and whether everyone is safe. The training helps them hone their observation skills and practice being aware of their surroundings, Wright said.

Because they can’t do things like place someone in virtual handcuffs, they’re required to tell their actions. This helps them learn to keep the lines of communication open with their partners, other first responders, dispatchers, bystanders, and subjects involved in a scenario. Talking about their actions also helps officers get oxygen in high-stress, high-adrenaline situations and, in turn, helps them make decisions, Wright said.

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“At the end of the day, we want everyone to be safe. We don’t want officers injured, we don’t want civilians injured, we don’t want third parties injured,” Wright said.

On November 28, two New London residents tried out the system and were tasked with responding to a virtual scene of a man loitering and, they later learned, having suicidal thoughts.

The pair spoke with the man, practicing de-escalation conversation tactics they had just seen officers use. But soon enough, the character pulled out a knife and the civilians deployed their mock weapons.

The shock on their faces was visible. They didn’t think they would fire a gun in this situation, but once immersed in it, they did.

Brandon Gonzalez-Cottrell, commanding officer of the New London County Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club, said the full immersion gave him a better understanding of what the officers were going through.

“It went from 0 to 60 very quickly,” he said. “I have a newfound respect for our officers, our department, their training and all that they truly do to protect our community.”

The department recognizes the limitations of the training system — this is not, in fact, the reality. There were times during training when Officer Christina Nocito could be heard saying things like “now I’m in a bush” – prompting laughter from those watching. But it does provide a safe environment in which officers can try out different unarmed tactics or the much higher stakes of a real-life scenario.

“We are able to do it in the safety of this room without any danger, other than someone can walk into some walls,” Cassiere said.

©2022 Hartford Courant.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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