Police departments in America sure love them some fancy, taxpayer-financed toys: AI-powered surveillance drones, homeless encampment-patrolling robot dogs, legally nebulous facial recognition tech. It’s enough to make one begin to question whether many of law enforcement forces are... what’s the word for it? Oh, yeah. Overfunded. The latest evidence of misguided “solutions” to the country’s kneejerk reliance on police for every conceivable crisis scenario? A new line of virtual reality training programs that simulate “real-world” scenarios ranging from mass shooters, to “high-risk” traffic stops, to suicide-by-cop.
Internal lesson plans and other documents recently obtained by Motherboard detail law enforcement departments’ increasing use of VR programs for a variety of training scenarios. Companies like VirTra and Axon advertise multibranched VR kits with titles like “De-Escalation,” “Mental Illness: A Practical Approach,” “Autism Awareness,” and “Active Threat / Active Killer,” all of which are necessary subjects to master for any competent police officer.
But it’s hard to watch the promo materials and not think the whole thing looks a helluva lot like some AAA-title multiplayer shooter akin to Call of Duty: COPS. Which will surely end well for everyone involved.
Grim and gamefied — VirTra’s website, for example, advertises a wide catalog of “immersive science-based training simulations designed to teach a variety of cognitive and psycho-motor skills ranging from de-escalation to judgmental use of force to situational awareness” for both police and military personnel. The company’s YouTube page includes dozens of uploaded videos like the one above. Many are relatively innocuous subjects like adverse weather conditions and marksmanship (we said relatively innocuous, okay?), but others like a movie theater mass shooter play-through get grim and gamified really quickly.
‘The use of force is not the only option’ — Many of the training scenarios appear to focus on de-escalation techniques, which is certainly welcome considering, y’know, any given day’s headlines, but the promotional materials don’t do a whole lot to inspire confidence in our officers in blue. “When you’re going to calls, not every single call is a use of force situation, so there’s a lot of different situations where you have to verbally de-escalate the situation or figure out other types of solutions,” one interviewee says in a video on VirTra’s “Mental Illness: A Practical Approach” lessons. “The use of force is not the only option.”
“Here you can have kind of like a do-over. If you go down one path and it’s not super great, you get the chance to do it again. So you’re not creating a training scar. You get that nice, positive ending that you want to get,” another explains. So that’s nice for them.
A stopgap solution — Police officers obviously need training on all manner of situations and high-risk environments, but it’s hard to see how these kinds of VR programs do much more than improve trigger-reaction times and stopgap education in lieu of properly funded mental health services and professionals. “Do-overs” would be great for everyone. Unfortunately, that’s not an option in the real world.