America has a policing problem. It has many problems, to be sure, but a day after the killing of Philando Castile and two days after the killing of Alton Sterling—both by police officers—it seems fair to say that America has a policing problem.
As with most problems, there are people lining up to solve it, many of whom have things to sell. This is not inherently wrong; sometimes solutions come through commerce. But in a country that frequently conflates more policing with better policing, this sort of pitchmanship is concerning. You can fuss with the exact parameters of the current approach to policing and how to optimize contact between public and law enforcement, but sometimes the solution is simply for that contact not to occur.
Judgment is what really matters
That, in a nutshell, is the problem that virtual reality police training tools must reckon with. In recent years, a number of products have been put on offer to police departments aiming to cut down on extrajudicial killings. The most prominent of these offerings, Virtra, started life as a videogame company before being adapted to its current use. Officers stand in a virtual room, surrounded by screens and carrying real (albeit not loaded) guns, and respond to situations as they occur.
“You want the officer to learn proper muscle memory,” Virtra founder Bob Ferris told Wired, “so in order to have the training apply at the highest level of effectiveness to real life encounters, you have to remove the head-mounted display, unless they’d use one in real life.” B.E.S.T Police Training Simulator, a newer offering that started life as a graduate project for students in the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program, appears to follow a similar model.
In their interviews and writings, Virtra and B.E.ST.’s creators seem to have good intentions. “The purpose of B.E.S.T Police Training Simulator is to train police officers in alternatives to use of force, to protect both officer and civilian lives,” reads the first post on the company’s Facebook page. “With this new technology,” Ferris told Wired, “they can better prepare officers for use of force and the life and death situations that often make the headlines.” All of this is fair enough: there is more to policing than just being able to discharge your weapon. Judgment is what really matters.
But can virtual reality really solve the judgement problem? On the one hand, more practice in conflict situations is probably a good thing. There is, however, plenty of evidence to suggest that players in games bring their real-life prejudices into virtual worlds, including their racialized perceptions of aggression. Insofar as a simulation is a game by another name, it’s not clear how VR would really solve this problem. There may be value in detecting these perceptions in a simulator as opposed to on the streets, but that is hardly a solution.
the headset is not the answer
The bigger problem with VR policing simulators, however, is that their relentless focus on conflict resolution. Sure, there is value in knowing how to deescalate a conflict, but there is also value in knowing that a situation is not a conflict and not turning it into one. You shouldn’t need to know all about de-escalating conflict to avoid turning routine traffic stops into deadly incidents. And yet the minor traffic stops of Sandra Bland and Philando Castile were turned into conflicts. The relevant skill here does not seem to be conflict de-escalation, though it has its uses, but the avoidance of conflict creation, which is not a skill so easily taught in a simulator. De-escalation of conflict presumes that a conflict already exists, and that is an inaccurate description of many situations.
At a deeper level, the challenge facing VR policing simulators is that in a lot of cases they may need to simulate doing nothing. Simulating moments of peak intensity, even ones where the optimal solution is to calm the situation, is an inaccurate representation of the challenges facing modern policing. Simulating the act of doing basically nothing, however, is antithetical to the work of a simulator. Do you just stand around in the thing for days waiting for something to happen?
But all of this is a needlessly technical way of expressing a rather simple problem: The answer to bad policing is not usually more policing. The answer to the creation of conflict where none exists is not more sophisticated conflict resolution training. The problems at play here are rooted in history and complicated and paradigmatic, and those are not things virtual reality can fix, no matter how much its connection with empathy is trumpeted. B.E.S.T. and Virtra can still improve policing, but the tech-for-tech’s-sake argument in favor of VR mainly serves to obscure more structural problems. If you need a fancy headset to realize that black lives matter, the headset is not the answer.
— Marcus Yam (@yamphoto) July 8, 2016