Conn. police using virtual reality to train officers in de-escalation tactics

Author: Taylor Hartz
Hartford Courant

NEW LONDON, Conn. — To all onlookers, New London police officer Daquan Stuckey stared at the white-tiled floor of a mostly empty room. But before his eyes, which were obscured by bulky virtual reality glasses, domestic violence was unfolding in the couple’s apartment.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Stuckey said, seemingly to no one, into a microphone attached to a headset that fit snugly over his ears. On the screen in front of him, viewers saw nothing but a graphic of a floating head and the outline of a man who was supposed to be the person involved in the domestic violence call.

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

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

Across the room, another policeman clicked away intently at a computer mouse, staring at a screen that allowed him to choose from prompts like “draw weapon” and “attack.”

He spoke to Stuckey not as a fellow officer, but as a figure guiding Stuckey through the department’s newest training tool, the Apex Officer virtual reality training simulator.

The New London Police Department is the first in Connecticut to get its hands on the new Apex Officer Trainer, which gives officers full control over a series of simulated scenarios to help them train in real-time for things they may encounter on duty. The 360-degree simulation fully immerses officers in a scene they might respond to in real life, such as a motor vehicle accident or a dispute in an apartment or alley.

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The department purchased the system through a grant from the Department of Justice. Because it is the first in the state to use the system, it has been discounted from nearly $100,000 to about $62,500 with added upgrades such as imitation Tasers.

Sights and sounds, including dialogue and props placed in the virtual space from firearms to beer cans, are controlled by officers who run the simulation as they walk their colleagues through the call. Just like in real life, cops don’t know what they’re getting into when they put on their goggles and “go black.”

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

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

“At the end of the day, everybody is somebody’s mother, father, sister, brother, niece, nephew,” Wright said. “It’s important that we do everything we can to improve our skill set to ensure that everyone involved in an incident walks away, moves on to the next day and has another opportunity to re-emerge and go out and do good.”

Sgt. Matt Cassiere said that although the system resembles 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 where officers receive feedback and consider what improvements they could make.

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

No live weapons are allowed in the room while using the simulator, but officers are “armed” with imitation tasers and handguns that they can “deploy” if the situation calls for it. The goal of the exercise is to bond with the subjects on call and hopefully avoid the use of any force.

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

When a police officer puts on the glasses, he is immersed in a new environment where he 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.

Since they can’t do things like put a person in virtual handcuffs, they have to narrate their actions. This helps them learn to maintain open lines of communication with their partners, other rescuers, dispatchers, bystanders and subjects involved in the scenario. Talking about their actions also helps officers get oxygen in high-stress, adrenaline-fueled 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-party injuries,” Wright said.

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On November 28, two New Londoners tested the system and were tasked with responding to a virtual scene of a man who was loitering and, they later learned, had suicidal thoughts.

The pair spoke to the man, rehearsing the conversational de-escalation tactics they had just seen the officers use. But rather quickly the figure drew a knife and the civilians deployed their simulated weapons.

The shock on their faces was visible. They didn’t think they would fire a gun in such a situation, but when they dived into it, they did.

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

“It went from 0 to 60 really fast,” he said. “I have a new found respect for our officers, our department, their training and all they really do to protect our community.”

The department acknowledges the limitations of the training system — in reality, this is not the reality. During the training, Officer Christina Nocito could be heard saying things like “I’m in the bush now” – prompting laughter from onlookers. However, it provides a safe environment in which officers can try out different tactics without weapons or the much higher stakes of a real scenario.

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

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