Hillsborough Police Officer Juan Duran is on the top level of a parking deck. He was there in response to a call about a man who threatened to jump from the top floor. Agent Duran spots the man standing on the thick concrete wall that wraps around the roof of the building. He also sees the man holding a hammer.
The man sees Officer Duran. “Don’t come any closer,” he shouts. ‘I’m going to jump! Stay behind!”
The cop stops, raises his hands and yells at the man, “It’s okay, I’m not here to arrest you. I’m here to help. Look, I’ve got nothing in my hands. I just want to talk. Can we talk?” Officer Duran’s voice is clear, but undemanding.
“Talking is fine, but it’s no use,” the man responds, looking back over the ledge of the parking deck.
“What is happening?” asks Agent Duran. “What’s your name?” The man calls his name and tells Officer Duran that he has no reason to live. He said he lost his job and his wife left him and took their children with them.
Agent Duran continues to talk to the man and now calls him by his name. He asks the guy what he’s looking for and tells him no one wants him to jump because someone called 9-1-1. He tells the man how he can get help and that he would like to help. Agent Duran reiterates that he does not have his gun with him and that his taser is put away.
“Do you love your children?” Officer Duran asked the man.
“More than anything,” he replied.
“That’s 100 percent why we don’t want you to jump off the building,” Officer Duran said.
Finally, the man drops the hammer and moves away from the ledge of the building. He agrees to be handcuffed and taken to the hospital for examination.
Agent Duran approaches the man, who has turned his back with his arms behind him, and cuffs him. Suddenly everything around it turns to a bright blue grid of squares, like giant graph paper. The parking deck disappears. The man with the shackles is gone in no time.
Agent Duran stands on a blue padded floor in a large room. There is a table with several monitors and laptops, and Sgt. William ‘Buddy’ Parker sits at the table with headphones and microphone. Agent Duran wears a helmet that covers his ears and eyes, and is equipped with a microphone. He has other technology strapped to his wrists.
Last October, Hillsborough Police Department received training equipment that uses virtual reality technology to put users in a wide variety of scenarios for enhanced interaction. The equipment has been in use at HPD since January and has been well received by agents.
“This is a virtual training simulator that allows us to do both de-escalation and the use of force or responding to resistance,” said Sgt. Parker, who provides training for the HPD. “We have received very positive feedback on the scenarios we have gone through with the agents. Obviously it’s a new technology for a lot of them, so they’re still testing and getting their feet wet with it. They’re a little nervous when they’re doing things in VR.”
Another benefit of VR technology is that members of the armed forces can gain experience and training in scenarios that would otherwise be difficult to set up or shut down for live training. Hillsborough, for example, has one parking deck that is frequently used. Logistically, it would be nearly impossible to shut down that facility for a full day of training. HPD officers can be hooked up to situations — such as those in which Officer Duran participated — to practice negotiation and communication skills. In his particular scenario, Agent Duran was able to get the desired result.
“What we want our officers to do is talk that person around without using force and let them help without anything else,” said Sgt. Parker, who also contributed to the screenplay, gave voice to the man who threatened to jump. From his seat at the controls, Sgt. Parker can click on other options to create hundreds of different options, leading to hundreds of different outcomes.
“There are agencies across the country that use this type of training simulator, but there are other formats where you sit in a room where images and scenarios are projected onto screens,” Sgt. said Parker. “This one (VR) is more immersive and you feel like you’re in the situation.”
That is one of the reasons why the floor is upholstered. It’s not unheard of for an officer in training to try to lean against a virtual car. Aside from the lifelike visuals, one of the key features of the VR training system is how role play emphasizes the importance of communication skills. Most scenarios involve a conversation at some point.
“It’s an important point when you consider who we hire for the profession,” said HPD chief Duane Hampton. “We need to find people who can communicate well. That is crucial. That’s why we do a lot of interviews with them. We try to assess their ability to communicate with others because that is the most important skill and which our people use every day, day in, day out. It’s more important than their driving style, more important than their firearms. More important than anything else is that ability to communicate.”
But even with the high-tech VR training systems in use at HPD and other law enforcement departments across the country, one can still wonder if the scenarios are close enough to what might actually happen. For example, the police’s response to the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, is being investigated for what appeared to be a glitch in whether members of that force received training for active shooting situations.
Is it even possible for an immersive training method, such as VR, to prepare agents to respond well and quickly to situations that could endanger their own lives? Chief Hampton said one of the main goals in training with VR technology is what he called “stress inoculation,” in which the trainee is repeatedly exposed to high-stress scenarios to create a greater chance of an automatic response if and when the officer is involved in a real-life situation.
“It can be very compelling, but the idea behind it is still that it generates the need to make decisions and react so that when you encounter this situation in the real world, you don’t start from scratch,” Chief Hampton said. “You start with a basis of knowledge and a pattern of reaction, a pattern of behaviour. And then it also gives you the opportunity to learn. You go into it, you come across it, you don’t react the way we should react, you get a chance to do it again.”
Chief Hampton is quick to point out that VR training is just one of a menu of training methods used by the HPD. Classroom training is provided to explore concepts and principles. There is a role-play training in which live actors are used. The “Sim Units” training is conducted with paint pellet guns that are very similar to what they use at work.
One concern that has attracted much attention on all sides of the political spectrum, and often falls on the shoulders of law enforcement officers, is how to prepare agencies to respond to calls involving or potentially involving someone with mental health problems. Chief Hampton sees the new VR system as a valuable training tool.
“That’s one of the good things about this system: it’s highly customizable. There are pre-designed scenarios in them, but you can also have the operator interact as the suspect, in terms of communication, so they can role-play and give the officer clues about mental illness. Again, it works in tandem with everything else we do. No training we do is just one thing. We do mental health training, we’ve done all kinds of different training for the officers, and the VR situation is a place where they can put those skills into practice,” Chief Hampton said.
In terms of an active shooting situation, Hampton said the main principle is to get as many law enforcement officers to the scene as quickly as possible. The first person on site is expected to make an estimate. If there is a gunman actively involved in injuring people, that one law enforcement officer is expected to go to the threat. Ideally, there should be more emergency workers on site. Chief Hampton said active-shooter calls the police, sheriff and highway patrol, and there is even training for working in various law enforcement departments.
“North Carolina has a great rapid implementation curriculum, which we provide training to deal with situations like this,” he said. “It’s across the board, so we should all have had some level of this training.”
The new VR technology is also seen as a recruiting tool, as potential employees often prefer to work for departments that illustrate the importance of training.
“We were actually very lucky. Our attrition rate is very low,” said Lieutenant Andy Simmons, who is more than the administrative services. “If we lose an officer, we replace an officer. We are much luckier than some of our brother and sister offices around us. But this is just another recruitment tool. That we can use this kind of training is what people are looking for and looking to the future by taking the technology and moving from there.”