Police Turn to Virtual Reality for Field Training Exercises

Virtual reality training can now allow police officers to apply techniques — such as implicit bias, cultural competency, de-escalation and peer intervention — to real-life encounters in practice scenarios.

Digital image drawn in pink and blue lines of a person wearing a virtual reality headset.
(TNS) — Two Virginia police officers in December pulled over a Black and Latino U.S. Army officer for a missing license plate before they pointed guns at 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, pepper sprayed him and pushed him to the ground, according to videos of the incident.

A week later, Lt. Zachary Bales and his training division team at the Sacramento Police Department were analyzing the video of that controversial police encounter to learn how to teach officers and new recruits what not to do.

But Bales and his team are also incorporating video of the Police Department’s own use-of-force encounters. And he says the department now has a virtual reality training system that will allow them to build a large library of different scenarios officers might encounter in the field.

The department is using the InVeris virtual reality training system. The adjustable and modular system includes a headset worn by the officer going through a virtual reality scenario, which can include a woman with a gun holding a hostage at a school or a man refusing to put down a knife.

“This is the step forward. This is next level, it’s completely immersive,” Bales said during a recent demonstration of the virtual reality training equipment. “Inside that headset, officers are hearing ambient noise: birds, traffic, sirens. They’re hearing the person that they’re responding to talk back to them. The operator can also alter that of how (the officers) are being responded to.”

Virtual reality training allows officers to apply techniques, such as implicit-bias, cultural competency, de-escalation and peer intervention, Bales said.

The adjustable and modular InVeris system allows up to two officers to go through the virtual scenario together as they listen to directions from an instructor over the headset. The instructor also provides the voice for the person the officer is encountering in the virtual scenario.

The system was provided to the Police Department by California’s Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training. Bales said the department has only had the InVeris headset system for about a month, and his training division is learning how to best incorporate this virtual system in their other training.

He said the system allows the department to create an environment very quickly for a particular training situations they want for officers, especially officers with less experience.

“So they can experience them, experience that stress inoculation and slow events down in the field so that they feel they have options ... they’re able to see these critical decision points in a call for service,” Bales said. “Training accelerates that experience.”

Police intervening with another officer

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn said this system will allow officers to train on how to intervene with another officer. He said it’s this type of intervention training that has been talked about a lot throughout the country since George Floyd was killed last year.

Last month, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in the death of Floyd, a Black man who was pinned to the pavement with Chauvin’s knee on his neck for 9 1/2 minutes. Three other former Minneapolis police officers also face charges for their involvement in the May 2020 arrest of Floyd, who shouted repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe before going silent, then limp.

Bales said Sacramento also incorporated into the department’s training video an incident last month in Orange County, in which video shows what appears to be a Westminster police officer punching a handcuffed woman and others officers intervening.

“We are really quick to look at these situations and say, ‘What can we glean from that, what can we learn?’” Bales said. “Every (scenario) is unique, nuanced. But there are some basic principles of policing that apply all the time. There’s values, ethics, proportionality, our policy and the law; all of those are consistent in what we do every single day.”

Bales said this type of training takes all these constructs and applies them to “messy, abstract” real-life situations and striving for the best outcomes.

Scenarios based on real-life police encounters

Bales said the virtual reality system will allow them to build scenarios based on real-life police encounters, including videos of the department’s own officers. He said Sacramento police have a review board that analyzes every use-of-force incident to determine whether the officer’s actions were justified and in accordance with department policy.

After the virtual training, the officers can take off the headset, watch what they did during the scenario and learn from it.

“There’s a ton of different perspectives in interactions with police,” Bales said. “There are obviously clear things that we want officers to do and things that we don’t want them to do. So, there’s lessons learned in every scenario.”

Bales said the department has only had the InVeris headset system for about a month and his training division is learning how to best incorporate this virtual system in all their other training. For now, the headset system will be used for officers already working for the Police Department.

“We use body-camera video and in-car camera video right now in our academy and in our continued professional training,” Bales said. “But we don’t just use Sacramento PD’s video. We’re trying to learn from other agencies, as well. ... They’re in the national conversation, and their in our conversation here in the department.”

Virtual reality training isn’t new to Sacramento police, which has been using for several years a system that uses pre-recorded video on large screens that officers can interact with. The operator can pick a few options, like a “choose your own adventure” game, Bales said.

Real locations such as Golden 1 Center

The InVeris system allows them to scan real locations in Sacramento, such as Golden 1 Center or the City Council chambers.

“It’s realistic as they can possibly get without actually being out there,” Hahn said. “When they’re walking around, they’re literally in virtual reality walking around something they could be literally walking around tomorrow.”

The police chief said he started his law enforcement career more than three decades ago, when officers didn’t have Tasers, computers in the car, body or in-car cameras, pepper-ball guns or any other less-than-lethal equipment used today. He said the virtual reality system is going to immerse officers in scenarios where they can learn how to use all their tools in real life.

“We ask our officers to do a wide array of things. And this is just one of many examples of how that’s changed so much since when I came on in the late ’80s,” Hahn said. “We essentially had a baton, Mace and a gun.”

He said virtual reality scenarios are just one part of the department’s training to prepare officers for everything they have to do to serve a very diverse and complex city.

“The reason this is so significant is because it’s a completely immersive kind of training,” Hahn said. “We’ve had a simulation machine for years and years. But it’s really like a TV screen standing in front of the officers, so it’s not quite as immersive as this.”

The system includes virtual reality “lighthouses” which scan for infrared light that tracks sensors on the officer’s gun, Taser, pepper spray and arms. So, the system can also pick up what their arms are doing even when they don’t have a weapon in their hand, Hahn said. And the scenarios can continue to the moment officers can approach and provide medical aid.

The portable system will allow the department to take it to one of the police stations throughout Sacramento and conduct training sessions there, Hahn said. The Police Department also wants to take the virtual reality system to public events and have residents go through this experience.

Hahn hopes the use of virtual reality training will continue to grow throughout the country and give more police agencies an opportunity to learn from one another, making these encounters safer for the community and the officers.

“Now, more than any time before, it doesn’t matter where some incident happens in this country,” Hahn said. “So, if something happens on the East Coast, we’re going to hear about it here, and we may very well have protests here.”

© 2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.