“I gotta get the guns,” Scott Digiralomo tells me over his shoulder as he leads me down the cinder block hallways of the Morris County Public Safety Training Academy in Morristown, New Jersey. Digiralomo, director of the county’s Department of Law and Public Safety, ducks into an empty room and, out of a large black safe, fetches an M4 rifle and a Glock.
At this point you should know that as a writer who works in Manhattan, lives in one of the yuppiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and gets panicky just passing by armed officers in the New York City subway, this is not how my days typically begin. And yet no more than 30 minutes later, there I am, a Glock tucked into the holster on my right hip and a can of pepper spray in the left, cautiously approaching a woman in a white SUV who is blocking her ex-boyfriend’s driveway, refusing to let him and his new girlfriend leave.
“Get that crazy bitch out of here now!” yells the new girlfriend, standing in front of the house as I wander up the lawn. Before I can take another step, shots ring out from the SUV. I freeze and a beat later clumsily pull the weapon from my hip.
“Uh, put your hands up? And your weapon down? Please?” I say too politely, as if asking a waitress for another basket of bread. But it works. The shooter emerges from the car in a gray hoodie and jeans. She’s still screaming, but she drops the gun and falls to her knees, arms raised. In that instant, I’m pretty sure the situation’s under control, so I take a second to wonder what I’m supposed to do next.
And then she shoots me.
Behind me, Digiralomo is laughing, not because he’s some masochist who’s going to watch me bleed to death but because the entire scenario, as you may have guessed, is a virtual reality simulation, and I—standing in the middle of the darkened room, surrounded by an array of screens, doing what has to be the world’s worst impersonation of a cop—look like a total tool.
But while this may have been little more than an exercise in embarrassment for me, Digiralomo assures me that this system, designed by a company called Virtra, is actually critical in helping police officers hone their skills as decision makers before they’re let out in the real world. Morris County installed the technology last November, smack dab in the middle of one of the most contentious periods between police and the public in recent history. And while Digiralomo says that wasn’t why the academy bought the roughly $300,000 system, it’s hard not to see the connection.
The fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer cracked open the scab on one of our country’s oldest wounds. It fueled new conversations about centuries-old issues and exposed gaping rifts across the entire country, not only on the subject of whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, but on whether or not minorities living in the United States are safe in the hands of the police officers that are hired to protect them. No amount of technology will ever solve these deeply rooted societal issues. Systems like Virtra’s—so-called cave automatic virtual environment, or CAVE, systems—have been around for a while. But as President Obama and others call for more robust police training, training technology that can simulate a world more like the real one takes on an added urgency.
Today, in states like New Jersey where Digiralomo works, officers are required to requalify for the police force twice a year by testing their shooting accuracy on a gun range. While that demonstrates that officers can use their weapons, it doesn’t necessarily help them understand whether they should.
“In a lot of cases like Ferguson, it’s not about whether or not the officer was accurate when they shot,” Digiralomo says. “The question comes down to the decision the officer made and whether the officer should have used deadly force. A lot of that comes down to decision-making.”
Systems like Virtra’s are designed with just that in mind. “We’re finding there’s a need for cities and national agencies to train at above minimum standards,” says Bob Ferris, CEO and founder of Virtra. “With this new technology, they can better prepare officers for use of force and the life-and-death situations that often make the headlines.”
Ferris was early on the virtual reality bandwagon, launching Virtra in 1993 as an entertainment company that would run simulations at theme parks around the country. But after 9/11, Ferris completely overhauled the business to focus on immersive police training, which required a total rethinking of the technology itself.
In the early days, Virtra started off making virtual reality goggles, not unlike the ones Oculus is now famous for, but when the company began working with law enforcement, Ferris realized this technology could do officers more harm than good.
“You want the officer to learn proper muscle memory, so in order to have the training apply at the highest level of effectiveness to real life encounters, you have to remove the head-mounted display, unless they’d use one in real life,” Ferris says. It’s also critical for officers to practice moving around space and interacting with one another, which would be severely inhibited if everyone were wearing goggles.
Instead, the system I tested out in Morris County, which is now being used at more than 200 training facilities around the world, consists of five large screens that surround a stage and five overhead projectors that cast lifesize videos onto the screens, giving the users the feeling that they’re standing in the center of a scene. The Glock on my hip was a real gun, but rather than being loaded with bullets, it was loaded with carbon dioxide, causing the gun to recoil each time I pulled the trigger. At the end of the gun is a laser, which interacts with the cameras overhead to detect whether or not a shot is accurate. The system also comes with a wearable device that gives officers a small electrical shock to simulate they’ve been shot. “Oh yeah,” Digiralomo says. “It hurts.”
But the most important part of the system is the content. The video of the woman in her ex-boyfriend’s driveway was just one of dozens of different scenarios that Virtra created, ranging from routine traffic stops to school shootings. And like a good choose-your-own-adventure novel, trainers can manipulate what happens next, escalating the tension or diffusing the situation on screen as it’s happening based on what the officer in training says and does. In my case for instance, Digiralomo could have made the shooter calm down, ending the scene right there. But since, of course, I was being a bit of a self-conscious baby about it, he let her shoot me.
Trainers can make a dog bark or a gate close in the distance. They can change the weapon at the last second, so instead of pulling a gun out, the suspect might pull out a bottle or a bat or nothing at all. This, Digiralomo says, is essential. “One of the concerns we had was we don’t want to run every officer through here so that every single scenario they got, it was justified to use deadly force,” he says. “So we’ll run a few with deadly force, a few where they use pepper spray, a few where the person just complies and gives up.”
Trainers can also create scenarios that challenge officers’ unconscious biases. For instance, in one video, a shooter is on the loose in a movie theater. As the officer surveys the scene, a black off-duty cop rushes through a door on the officer’s left with a gun in his hand. The trainer can run a scenario in which the officer’s badge is visible in his other hand or a scenario in which his badge is on his hip and not immediately apparent to the officer in training. According to Digiralomo, when the off-duty officer has the badge on his hip, the trainee kills him 80 percent of the time.
That’s why both Ferris and Digiralomo say having competent trainers operating this system and catching trainees’ mistakes is so important. “The instructor needs to go through what they did right and wrong, and it’s amazing how quickly officers are able to adapt and go from making decisions they regret to decisions they know are the best they’re able to make,” Ferris says.
Of course, virtual reality can never be a true proxy for the real thing. For starters, officers know they’re not going to get shot and that the person on the other end of their trigger is just a projection. Another issue is that, because it’s all shot on video, the camera angle dictates how the officer moves through space, much like a video game does. And while the 300-degree view makes that experience immersive, it’s not completely realistic. As Eugene Fluri, a SWAT team commander, noted after running through one traffic stop scenario for me, “The angle of the video shows the officer right in front of the window, and I wouldn’t have done that. If he moved his hands, I would have moved, but where am I gonna go?”
You can’t call for backup, open doors, or handcuff someone. All that action is trapped on a screen. Still, watching Fluri navigate the movie theater scenario, knees bent, gun drawn, and basically putting me to shame, it’s easy to see the advantages to this method of training. As he moves through the space, Fluri interacts with the video, telling scared moviegoers, “Out this way, out this way!” and asking victims, “Where’s the person who shot you?” He’s rotating left to right and back again, rehearsing for the real thing. And when he stumbles upon the shooter in the parking lot outside, he repeatedly insists that he drop the gun, until finally, the shooter fires, and Fluri fires back, eventually killing him.
Afterward, if the demonstration hadn’t just been for my benefit, a trainer would have reviewed Fluri’s every move to decide whether he’d made the right call. “At what point do you shoot? How many times do you say put the gun down? Because he just killed a bunch of people and is refusing to go, are you justified?” Digiralomo says. “Those are all the questions we review afterward.”
Compare that to the gun range on the lower level of the academy. It’s an expansive concrete void with little numbered corrals, at the end of which are faceless metal targets that have been pummeled with bullets over the years. There’s no space to run around, no judgement calls to be made, no nuance. Officers’ only job when they’re down here is to shoot and shoot and shoot, until they’ve proven they’re a good enough shot to keep their jobs. Given the complex web of historical and societal ills that have contributed to the current lack of faith between police and the public, it’d be unfair to say that this type of training alone is the problem. But it sure doesn’t seem like the solution.
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