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Good cop, good cop: Can VR help to make policing kinder?

Image credit: Dreamstime

As police forces in the US and elsewhere wrangle with accusations of bias and brutality, a quiet effort is underway using VR to boost empathy and reduce trigger responses.

Disasters happen. From surgeons causing accidental harm to a patient to soldiers losing their heads in combat, the opportunity to screw up before being let loose on the real world can save lives. VR simulations offer the perfect combination of safety and realism for preparing people for these high-pressure, high-risk jobs.

The law enforcement sector is bristling with VR start-ups such as Nsena, SurviVR and Apex Officer - all promising to use virtual scenarios to teach skills essential for their duties. While practical skills like the use of force are at the forefront of these programmes, some simulations also aim to hone more emotionally affective skills.

VR allows people to step into others’ shoes; it elicits the feeling of presence by depicting experiences from the perspective of other people, functioning as the “ultimate empathy machine”. A Stanford University study led by Professor Jeremy Bailenson, for instance, showed that conveying emotive narratives through VR brings about more behavioural change (such as signing a petition) than traditional empathy building techniques.

Encouraged by such research, the UN, Facebook and many more of the world’s most influential organisations are throwing cash at programmes such as 'VR for Good' which aim to harness the technology in pursuit of greater social wellbeing.

Meanwhile, some of the largest police forces in the US are experimenting with VR to build empathy, self-reflection and resilience, as well as hopefully shed their reputation for aggression.

Professor Albert ‘Skip’ Rizzo is a VR veteran stationed at the University of Southern California. He and his colleagues have been working with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on a pilot project to help police officers build the resilience necessary in their line of work. He is optimistic about what VR could do for the police. “We’re not just willy-nilly throwing technology at problems: there’s a pretty solid rationale for this,” he said.

Rizzo and his colleagues began by building a simulation of a domestic disturbance - among the most common and upsetting scenes to which officers are called. The trainee is tasked with de-escalating a flaming row while being faced with unexpected challenges. The customisability of VR means that every scene can be unique, with the addition of weapons, neglected children, or drugs scattered throughout the house, or bystanders appearing to film the chaos. Staging these conflicts with actors would feel even more realistic, but is prohibitively expensive for most police forces, Rizzo explained.

Crucially, VR gives trainees a dose of the fraught nature of the job more effectively than other tools. Being immersed in these scenes is likely to trigger panic and distress, forcing the trainee to practice regulating their own emotions before plunging into the reality of dealing with a new stranger’s absolute rock bottom, every single day.

“I don’t want officers experiencing that for the first time in the field,” said Luanne Pannell, director of training for LAPD. Pannell, a psychologist by training, hopes that simulations like Rizzo’s will give police officers an opportunity to experience their critical thinking being hijacked by fear and anger within a safe environment. Understanding how emotions influence decision-making is vital for behavioural change, she says.

An almost comically crude LAPD training exercise requires an officer to put a paper bag over their head. One colleague then role plays a police officer asking for information while their other colleagues whisper unpleasant things to them. The point of this (admittedly very rudimentary) exercise, Pannell explains, is to replicate the experience of a psychotic episode.

In theory, police officers familiar with diverse psyches and behaviours are less likely to read unusual behaviour as aggressive and consequently less likely to feel threatened and jump to use of force against someone who may be more of a danger to themselves to others. Thankfully, tools rather more sophisticated than paper bags are emerging for this very purpose.

Axon – best known for developing the taser and police body cameras – hopes to establish itself in this niche space as it branches out into VR training. According to Laura Brown, head of training at Axon, VR is the perfect medium for sharing the experience of conditions like autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and schizophrenia, on account of providing complete immersion in any person’s reality.

The Axon simulations begin from the perspective of an individual in crisis as police officers arrive and speak to them. Axon used post-production editing to depict the symptoms of these conditions: to imitate ASD, they turned sensory stimuli up to extremes (e.g. uncomfortable light and sound) and to imitate schizophrenia they added audio warping, bodiless voices and directed the actors to perform in an excessively dramatic and antagonistic manner.

As the simulation switches to the perspective of the police officer – standing in a comparatively normal and calm scene – the trainee makes branching choices to try to defuse the situation, better equipped to predict how a person with certain forms of ASD or schizophrenia will perceive their actions.

Axon is already working with Chicago law enforcement and plans to begin this with crisis intervention teams, although Brown would eventually like to see this extended to trainee police officers, so they are encouraged to approach people with as much “empathy, understanding and calm” as possible.

“What we’re seeing is individuals feel fear around these people because it’s an unknown,” she said. “You can talk about that for racial bias or mental bias or developmental disability bias; we grow up with bias as part of our human condition and we’re very interested in reducing that trigger response and that fear.”

Fear of the other turns deadly when it comes to racism in policing; a 2015 University of California-Davis study found that unarmed black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police officers than unarmed white Americans. While bias in law enforcement is not an exclusively American problem, the US is bubbling with outrage against countless unprovoked attacks against young black men by the police, culminating in the Black Lives Matter movement.  

As head of training for the LAPD, Luanne Pannell is well aware of the sheer scale and stubbornness of the problem. The LAPD has earned a notorious reputation for racist police brutality over years of violence; most notably in the case of Rodney King, who was severely beaten by four LAPD officers in 1991. Despite the assault being caught in full on video, all four officers were acquitted at their trial. When the jury's decision was announced, public disbelief and anger triggered the infamous 1992 LA riots, which lasted for six days and killed 67 people, with a further 2,373 injured. Distrust of the police has been brewing for the decades since, and Pannell knows that there is a lot of work to be done.

If deprogramming racial bias was easy, though, the problem would have been resolved long ago. In reality, there have been extensive and varied efforts to teach officers about implicit bias with a view to making them aware of when their decision-making is motivated by racism.

The concept of unconscious or implicit bias is one of the most famous in psychology, with many methods for identifying and eliminating it. The most popular is the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which relies on association between identifiers (such as black or white skin) and positive and negative words, although it is considered a weak predictor of bias. There is hope among academics and law enforcement officials, however, that VR will prove to be a powerful tool for facing and addressing biases.

The VR scenario being built by University of Southern California researchers for the LAPD, for instance, is likely to include characters with customisable ethnicities. As trainees respond to a range of characters under pressure, their most dangerous implicit biases would be laid bare.

“It’s good to identify unconscious bias, but what I see often it’s taught in an academic environment, like a four-hour lecture,” Pannell said. “But when you are reacting to a bias that you might have, you are not putting it through a cognitive process […] often you don’t see it until you are in a scenario.”

Rizzo agrees, adding that there are other reasons why is it so important to keep police officers’ worst impulses in check: “I think that kind of learning can only come about from experience and that’s what we try to do with VR, create experiences. You can read it out of a book and maybe you have a nature that is more empathetic to the pain of others, but that’s not every cop.

"Sometimes you get people drawn to that profession who for one reason or another have authoritarian feelings and as authoritarianism rises, empathy decreases. So, give people experiences and ways to deal with those experiences. You’re not going to teach them that out of a book or from a PowerPoint.”

Among the companies interested in helping trainees to face their biases is SurviVR, which develops a range of training simulations, including school shootings. These feature randomly generated characters of all ages, builds, genders and ethnicities to challenge and monitor inbuilt preconceptions about visible differences. After a trainee has completed a scenario, they can play it back from various perspectives to assess their performance.

“We definitely want officers to be able to reflect on why they made certain decisions the way they did, so they can be more cognizant of their thinking and situational awareness when they enter real scenarios,” said Brian Hoang, CEO of SurviVR. Hoang says that there has been interest from clients in incorporating pattern tracking such that a trainee could see if they are responding with disproportionate force to black male suspects and monitor if they are eliminating that bias.

School shooting scenario in VR

A SurviVR school shooting simulation

Image credit: SurviVR

“You can decide you’re not racist but you don’t know until you go out there and shoot up whatever demographic you don’t believe you’re biased against,” said Hoang. “We’re trying to expose them to as many high-pressure scenarios as possible with a variety of different suspect demographics, so that if we do pattern tracking and find that you have used a disproportionate force against a certain demographic then better you found that out in our practice environment than in a real-world situation.

"It’s never our goal to, quote-unquote, 'get someone in trouble'. We’re trying to prevent that. That’s the whole purpose of the thing. If you do have an unconscious bias, we want you to be able to find out before you go out there and make a mistake that costs lives.”

The use of VR to reveal implicit bias (including racism) and reduce trigger response is being quietly explored by many US police forces. In addition to the LAPD, at least one other high-profile police department is working with one of the largest tech giants on a very similar VR program to monitor and counter racial bias in policing.

Both VR and policing experts agree, however, that there is no magic bullet to end historically entrenched racism in law enforcement. No unconscious bias training can prevent officers from wilfully acting with prejudice and this poison often runs so deep that police training alone is unlikely to ever overcome it.

Chris Burbank, who became vice president of strategic partnerships for the Centre for Policing Equity after a long career in law enforcement, says that there have been many iterations of unconscious bias training over the past decades, of which this is simply the latest. “It took on a lot of different names in those 25 years [of serving in law enforcement], but not once did we measure the result of policing as a whole,” he said.

Burbank is concerned that efforts are too focused on changing the behaviour of individuals rather than enacting systemic change, such as by increasing support to end homelessness and joblessness: issues which disproportionately affect Black Americans and other minority groups. During his tenure as Salt Lake City Police Chief, Burbank experimented with calling in housing and mental health support for troubled individuals – some of whom had been arrested up to 500 times – rather than making further arrests. Overall, the scheme was a success, resulting in far less trouble for the public, the police department and the individuals themselves. Similar schemes were run in Minneapolis and Las Vegas, with positive results.

The underlying cause of the problem is that black Americans are overly criminalised, he says. Similar issues face people like those with mental health conditions, substance addicts and sex workers. Change will only come when radically progressive leaders are willing to challenge the decades-long status quo.

“All those things [like VR training] are good, but they are not the panacea,” Burbank said. “That’s where government and policing falls into this mistake. A lot of people call a vendor and say 'Can you come train us so we’re no longer biased?'. Well, you’ve done some training, but it’s not going to change the [wider] outcome.”

Perhaps VR simulations aimed at fighting police bias is just another example of a technology sometimes hyped-up as the answer to a problem too deep-rooted to be solved by nothing less than sweeping systemic change.

However, until appetite grows in governments worldwide to overturn how law enforcement is enacted, this “ultimate empathy machine” is as powerful a tool as we can hope for.

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