Scranton, Pa., Wants to Use Virtual Reality to Train Police Officers on Use of Force

The city is seeking a $150,000 state grant to buy a new virtual reality simulator to better train for use-of-force situations.

by Jim Lockwood, The Times-Tribune / April 23, 2018

(TNS) — SCRANTON, PA. — Scranton, Pa., city police may soon use a virtual reality simulator to better train for use-of-force situations.

The city seeks a $150,000 state grant to buy a new virtual training system with 3-D, interactive scenarios displayed on large, immersive screens.

As society changes, so too must police training, Police Chief Carl Graziano said.

For example, schools in the past had just fire drills, but today may also have active-shooter drills, he said.

For police, the traditional training methods of static classroom instruction followed by controlled-environment, shooting-range practice no longer suffice, according to the city’s grant application.

As frequency and severity of use-of-force encounters rise around the country, police now place even more emphasis on the quality of training, the application says. Methods are shifting from simple “shoot/don’t shoot” scenarios at target ranges to virtual reality covering a full range of responsibilities officers face daily. Those may include incidents involving individuals with mental or behavioral health problems, according to the application.

The simulator consists of five borderless flat screens positioned on five of the six sides of a hexagon, creating a 300-degree field of view to the user. Five digital cameras interface directly to the screen. The system can create hundreds of use-of-force scenarios that police may encounter in real life.

“It’s about as close to reality as you can get without it being reality,” Graziano said. “It really tests the senses of the officers in a training atmosphere. You really believe you’re in that situation.”

The funds would come from a Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Justice Assistance Grant.

On April 16, city council unanimously introduced — with President Pat Rogan, Tim Perry, Kyle Donahue, Bill Gaughan and Wayne Evans in favor — a resolution from Mayor Bill Courtright for the city to apply for the grant. Gaughan said the new system would be a great training tool.

“Police officers are engaged in situations that can be at times confusing — when to use force, when to not use force,” Gaughan said. “We’ve seen across the country over the past few years some of these situations escalate. The Police Department is taking a really proactive approach to use this technology to train our officers.”

The resolution will come up for a second vote on adoption at council’s meeting today at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

The city would install the virtual reality equipment and software at the Police Department training division’s Serrenti Center in the Hill Section.

The Police Department also would make the training system available to other area law enforcement agencies, and several have expressed interest in using it, the application says. Having citizens experience the virtual reality system also would give the public a greater appreciation of the challenges police face, Graziano said.

The grant application includes letters of support from Lackawanna College Police Academy Director John Chilleri, Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell and state Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald.

“The use of this technology will allow our city’s police department to target prevention efforts and improve public safety in our community,” Blake said in his letter.

Powell said the training system will identify whether force applied was accurate and whether a trainee’s responses represented appropriate judgments.

“The trainee can then be exposed to additional training to further refine their decision-making and skills,” Powell said in his letter.

©2018 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.