How police in Connecticut are using virtual reality to train officers in de-escalation tactics – Hartford Courant

To everyone watching, New London police officer Daquan Stuckey was staring at a white floor in an empty room. But in front of his eyes, covered by dark brown glasses, it was a way to call for violence in a man’s house.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Stuckey spoke, seemingly out of nowhere, into a microphone attached to a headset held over his ears. On the screen in front of him, viewers see nothing more than a picture of a floating head and an outline of a man who is believed to be involved in a domestic violence scandal.

One room over, a policeman clicked hard on a computer mouse, looking at a screen that allowed him to choose from commands like “draw weapon” and “attack.”

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

New London police are the first in Connecticut to get their hands on the new Apex Officer trainer, which will give officers full control over a variety of scenarios to help they train in real time for what they face at work. The 360-degree simulation fully immerses officers in a scenario they would respond to in real life, such as a car accident or an argument in an office or hallway.

The department purchased the system through a grant from the Department of Justice. Because it was the first in the state to use the system, it was reduced from its nearly $100,000 cost to about $62,500 with upgrades like Tasers.

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The sights and sounds, including dialogue and props included in the virtual environment from guns to beer cans – are controlled by the officers running the simulation in their leading their colleagues on the phone. As in real life, officers do not know what they are walking into when they put on their goggles and “get dark.”

New London Police Chief Brian Wright (center, right) leads civilian Brandon Gonzalez-Cottrell (center, left) through the department's new Apex Officer reality training system during a community outreach event in the office on Nov.  28. (Taylor Hartz/Hartford Courant)

Although the New London Police Department’s Brian Wright said the benefits of the new Apex program are unlimited, its main purpose is to train police officers in de-escalation procedures in situations that are considered real, prepared they are real time.

Wright noted that as an emergency responder, police are often dealing with residents on the worst day of their lives when emotions are high. His goal is to teach his officers to be comfortable with them and develop a relationship that will help keep everyone safe.

“At the end of the day, everyone is a mother, father, sister, brother, nephew, son,” Wright said. “It is important that we do everything possible to improve our skills to ensure that those who participate in an event, go to see another day and have a chance to reinvent themselves and go out and do better.”

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Sgt. Matt Cassiere said that even though the system is like a video game, they think the exercise is not a game; It is a tool to increase continuous training and is always followed by a discussion session where the managers get feedback and think about what they can improve.

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

No live weapons are allowed in the room while officers are using the simulator, but officers are “equipped” with mock Tasers and handguns they can “program” if the situation demands it. The goal of the activities is to connect with the subjects by phone and hope to avoid the spread of any force.

The system helps officers to test nonviolent strategies, to try new ways to achieve freedom and improve decision-making.

When an officer puts on the safety goggles, they are introduced to a new environment where they first have to understand where they are, who they are talking to and if everything is safe. The exercise helps them hone their observation skills and practice recognizing their surroundings, Wright said.

New London police chief David Diogo leads fellow officers through an on-the-job training exercise in Nov.  28. (Taylor Hartz/Hartford Courant)

Since they can’t do things like put a person in virtual gloves, they have to tell what they are doing. This helps them learn to open lines of communication with their peers, other first responders, dispatchers, bystanders and topics related to an event. Talking through their actions also helps officers get oxygen in high adrenaline-stimulated situations, and, in turn, helps them make decisions, Wright said.

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“Ultimately we want everybody to be safe. We don’t want officers to get hurt, we don’t want civilians to get hurt, we don’t want all three injuries,” Wright said.

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

They spoke with the man, practicing the same de-escalation techniques they had seen with officers. But quickly, the man drew his knife and the citizens put down their weapons.

Shock is visible on their faces. They didn’t think they would get a weapon in that situation, but when it was put in, they did.

Brandon Gonzalez-Cottrell, a director with the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club of New London County, said the full turnout made him understand what officers were going through.

“It went from 0 to 60 quickly,” he said. “I have renewed respect for our officers, our profession, their training and all that they truly do to protect our community.”

The Department acknowledges the limitations of the training system – which, of course, is not true. There were moments during rehearsals when director Christina Nocito was heard saying things like “I’m in the woods” – causing onlookers to laugh. Instead, it provides a safe place where officers can try different tactics without weapons or high-levels of real-life situations.

“We can do this in the safety of this room without any problems, maybe someone is going through some walls,” said Cassiere.

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