VR and De-escalation: Part One of a Series

September 2, 2021

Written by Ellis Pines

How Push-To-Talk + Virtual Reality are a proven game changers in de-escalation training 

Virtual reality with its 360-degree immersion represents a major leap in learning, especially when the technology has carefully evolved from the maker of FATS® simulators, the gold standard for decades. But our engineers realized from the onset that a successful system required more than head sets and 3D environments.

Law enforcement officers (LEOs) want to gain confidence in their abilities to communicate under stress. That's what InVeris engineers discovered in developing the new VR-DT (Virtual Reality - Decision and Tactics) training system. The testbed of law enforcement agencies ranged from the nearly10,000-strong Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to installations with less than 30 officers. In each case, officers spoke of the difficulty in engaging a suspect in a conversation without letting their guard down. At any moment, a situation could take a turn for the worse, necessitating the LEO to react instantly and precisely. To avoid the so-called “lawful but awful” response requires calm, self-possession and verbal fluency. Trainees thus find themselves trying to shift a longtime habitual paradigm that put more emphasis on the violent end of the force continuum – to be ready to defend themselves and others.

De-escalation depends on verbal commands and conversation

California’s 2019 De-escalation Summit points to this critical role of the officer's verbal exchange in the very first stage of the encounter:  

“De-escalation is not new, and every officer, without exception, has used and benefitted from a variety of applied de-escalation techniques, directly and indirectly, their entire careers. De-escalation, broken into the sum of its own parts, is skilled communication, conflict resolution, crisis intervention and influence. Those skilled at de-escalation are persuasive and understand how to defuse aggression, anger, unlawful defiance or uncontrolled emotions. De-escalation achieves control verbally before action should be taken to accomplish control physically.”[1] (emphasis supplied)

The article continues: “The more officers understand and are able to apply skilled and deliberate communication techniques, the more effective and successful they will be while carrying out their duties. In contrast, officers lacking knowledge, followed by poor skills and inexperience in controlling their verbal and physical communication, will suffer in their performance and have difficulties controlling or de-escalating problems.”

The conclusion: “Both verbal and physical communication effectiveness are among the most important skills a law enforcement professional can possess. How information is spoken verbally and presented physically is powerful. How the communication is delivered (verbal/physical)controls the success or failure of the message.” (emphasis supplied)

Throughout the developmental process, InVeris increasingly realized that enabling this fluid communication was as vital as the 360-degreeimmersion. The VR technology only provided a credible setting for de-escalation training. The fundamental challenge was how to give officers improved skills and confidence in their verbal ability to resolve a conflict.

Credible role-playing heightens the realism and inoculates the LEO

2D systems allow instructors to role play a suspect while the officer interacts with figures on a screen. VR-DT, however, demanded a more immediate presence for talking to suspects.

InVeris engineers found a unique solution in the adaptation of Push-To-Talk technology, which lets the instructor, role playing a suspect, converse with the trainee within the scenario. Unlike projection systems, the instructor controls the simulated scenario from a computer directly hooked up to the headset. Using a microphone heard in the headset and branching the scenario depending on trainee response, the instructor can believably and rapidly move the action along. In this cadence that replicates areal-life confrontation, the trainee must learn to respond rather than react, deciding when to de-escalate with talk or utilize a less-lethal option versus when to use a weapon.

Officers appreciate that with the implementation of the PTT and open mic, the instructor can act as the NPC (non-player character) in the scenario, i.e., the suspect that is not under the control of the trainees. With the instructor only focusing on the physical actions to trigger the NPC, the operation is far more fluid. The instructor appears in the scenario as an interactive figure whose words and actions can swiftly respond to the nuances of the trainee's approach.

A top-of-mind priority shift: from shoot/no shoot to communicating

As a result, VR with PTT changes the LEO training paradigm from shoot/no shoot to learning how to communicate. For example, one InVeris VR-DT scenario calls the LEO to a public place, where a dangerous-looking suspect is holding a knife and potentially jeopardizing passers-by. The trainee, wearing the VR headset, must approach the suspect and began to communicate with him. Meanwhile. the instructor for the program answers back to the trainee, acting as though he were the character holding the weapons. Each time the trainee acts, the instructor can branch the scenario into multiple alternatives, mimicking real life.

This flexibility offers a major contrast to traditional shoot/no shoot 2D simulation, which could only branch two ways, one where the trainee shot the suspect versus one where the trainee calmed the situation. VR-DT sessions give instructors leeway to take the session in many different directions, depending on the officer's handling of a potentially volatile situation. Consequently, LEOs can immediately see the impact of their words: for example, if they are able to withstand a suspect's verbal abuse, might they be able to avoid a catastrophe? Can they help the person-in-crisis rather than seeing them spiral into a state of mind that precipitates a dangerous action?

Of course, instructors are ready to challenge officers with escalations that can happen in seconds.

The most valued aspect of preparing for de-escalation

In its collaboration with officers, InVeris learned that this realistic communications training tended to be the most valued aspect of preparing for actual de-escalation challenges. As they participated in these complex scenarios that “could go either way,” they had the rare opportunity to view how they could influence the course of events for the better – a valuable training experience for real-life situations.

To explore VR and PTT for your agency and how it might meet your training needs, please contact info@inveristraining.com.

[1] See California POST, p. 17 https://post.ca.gov/Portals/0/post_docs/publications/DeEscalation.pdf

More Articles