SCHENECTADY — As the world sat in collective horror over the unarmed death of George Floyd last May, the focus quickly shifted to how police departments are handling interactions with the public.
Since Floyd was killed, departments across the country have announced various initiatives to calm the tension simmering between police and the people.
Schenectady Police Department is taking that initiative up another step with the help of virtual reality. The force is teaming up with Schenectady-based Catapult Games and the Center for Community Justice to use video games to practice de-escalation techniques for situations officers are presented with during their shifts.
“I’m excited to team up with Catapult Games to help them test and refine their virtual reality training application,” Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said in a press release. “I believe that by focusing on de-escalation techniques, this application can significantly improve modern police training, leading to more peaceful resolutions of conflict.”
Catapult CEO Dane Jennings explained the simulation as a series of choices. The trainee (whether it be a new officer, a veteran of the force or anyone else in the precinct who is assigned) will be presented with a scenario that resembles a real-life situation. From the start, the trainee will have the option to approach the vehicle/person with a more subdued approach or to go in full force. The result of the choice will unfold based on the aggression involved in the approach; if the trainee chooses to politely greet a person and strike up a gentle conversation, the person might willingly disclose requested information, where if the trainee chooses to brandish equipment, the person might become more agitated, causing the situation to quickly escalate. How the situation ultimately plays out is entirely up to the trainee, as their choices are what will dictate how peaceful or violent the interaction becomes. To make the simulation as close to reality as humanly possible, trainees are asked to use proper police protocol during gameplay so they are using their skills hands-on.
Jennings said the simulation is successful, but still not perfect; if a trainee chooses the same choices each time, the situation will unfold verbatim, which isn’t 100 percent accurate in society. However, Jennings said the ability to use virtual reality to simulate the real police station, with the roles involved represented through game characters, allows trainees to have a close-to-real experience with interactions they might encounter on duty. Schenectady Police Department has been providing feedback to Catapult, and bringing the staff on ride-alongs, so the gaming company can better understand the nuances of a police officer’s day and create stronger representation.
“Peaceful resolution, accountability, justice and community-based remedies are at the core of our agency’s mission,” Center for Community Justice executive director Cheryl Vallee said in a press release. “The partnership between the Schenectady Police Department and Catapult Games is a welcome step in the right direction to help members of our community experiencing difficult times. We’re excited to offer our assistance and look forward to helping with the upcoming public forums.”
Jennings added he hopes to broaden the simulation’s horizons to the public with monthly feedback sessions and updated software so people can see how the force is training. Ultimately, the goal is for Catapult to provide a tool that will increase de-escalation skills in encounters and allow for a force that is more equipped to deal with situations in a non-violent way.
“Use of force by police is a major concern in our country, we believe that leveraging cutting edge technology with community input can make a positive impact on human rights and safety,” Jennings concluded.
“Using the coalition of experts at the Center for Community Justice really allowed us to hone in on problems in society and make the game as real as possible.”
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