Officers cite training and tech as top priorities. One agency is using virtual reality to tackle both.
- By Jessie O'Brien -
Survey data show that the use of technology and better training are among the top priorities listed by law enforcement employees. When utilized properly, tech and training can alleviate workload and improve policing. One agency is using virtual reality to address both concerns.
The National Employee Survey for Law Enforcement® (The NES-LE) by Polco is an internal assessment that investigates how police and sheriff's office employees view their jobs. The NES-LE police survey gives agencies insights into the successes and pain points within their departments, and shows what is most important to law enforcement staff to do their jobs successfully.
Based on nationwide results, 95% of officers said training, such as de-escalation techniques, crisis and mental health management, was the main concern. And 89% said the use of technology, such as drones and less-lethal electric weapons, was the second biggest priority.
“Technological advances in the law enforcement field create new avenues for local governments to more efficiently and effectively improve community safety,” said Michelle Kobayashi, the Vice President of Innovation at Polco. “We’re seeing more agencies experiment with new tech.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department recently implemented virtual reality training into its program to supplement scenario training. Retired Training Police Officer Stewart Ballweg and Juan Avila, then-UWPD night shift patrol Lieutenant, spearheaded the project. Avila said there is typically a lot of downtime between groups during real-life scenario-based training. That’s when officers get a chance to use VR.
The system, InVeris, houses a multitude of scenarios. Agencies can choose what they want to focus their training on.
"[With the VR] we have the ability to do traffic stops, to do active shooter scenarios, to do shoot/don't shoot scenarios,” Avila said, “But more of the focus was able to communicate back and forth, [practice] de-escalation, and have that interaction with the other people inside of the screen who can talk back to you when you give them an order.”
Upon purchasing the VR, UWPD was able to build its own custom scenario that looks like a real-life place. Avila and his team sent images and videos of the nearby hospital’s psych patient unit for VR mapping. UWPD chose to replicate this location because of the hands-on communication challenges related to a response to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. As The NES-LE revealed, this is the top concern for agencies all over the U.S.
The goal of the simulation is for officers to de-escalate a patient who needs to be transported to a mental health facility, but refuses to go. Unlike other VR systems, the characters interact and respond to the officer’s words and actions.
If the officer cannot talk the patient down, the situation escalates and then the officer can choose to utilize a weapon, such as pepper spray, a flashlight, baton, TASER or handgun. After the simulation, they debrief over what happened, how to improve and what went well.
“You can see the officers are taking the feedback and taking the training seriously,” Avila said. “They have applied it out on the streets and they have had cases similar to what they have just done in training. For us, it has worked.”
Avila said officers had to recently talk down a suicidal patient in the hospital’s psych unit. The VR training directly correlated to the real-life situation.
Agencies that create a custom scenario can choose to make it public. Doing so allows any other agency with the VR to utilize the custom maps, which is useful because the mapping is pricey. The program costs $50,000 to set up. Not every agency would be willing to pay for this, nor the additional cost of a new custom map. But prioritizing spending on tech may be worth it to some agencies.
According to The NES-LE, 63% of law enforcement employees say technology helps them do their jobs effectively. Today, many agencies are short-staffed and don’t have the resources to meet increasing mental health concerns. While technology couldn’t replace the value of a human officer who can connect and de-escalate a situation, using technology as a supplementary tool, as UWPD has done, could relieve some of the stress.
“Our research shows that training and tech are two areas officers value the most,” Kobayashi said. “Agencies that align their priorities with these needs are likely to see greater success."
Learn how the National Employee Survey for Law Enforcement (The NES - LE) can provide employee insights so you can better understand your staff and improve your agency.
This article originally appeared in Police 1.