Police Officers Are Learning to Spot Sex Trafficking in Virtual Reality
VR could be especially well-suited for teaching officers how to spot problems that aren’t often immediately recognizable
A little after 5 a.m. on November 5, 2019, a police officer in Lodi, California received a dispatch: gunshots had been heard in the industrial park. He pulled up to find a 37-year-old male armed with a semi-automatic rifle and handgun. When the man started shooting, the officer returned fire, flooring the suspect, who was transported to the hospital with nonthreatening wounds. The officer was unharmed.
What could have gone differently in this scenario? Was there a way to disarm the suspect without fire?
These are the types of questions Lieutenant Steve Nelson of the Lodi Police Department wants his trainees to think about when they enter his recreations of on-the-job predicaments in the station’s virtual reality training simulator. “We focus on de-escalation,” he says. “Being an effective communicator plays a huge part, but some trainees find it difficult to engage people in conversation.” In VR, they can practice their verbal skills, with less pressure.
The software Nelson uses, called Apex Officer, lets officers remake the past with an eye toward analyzing inflection points and de-escalation. “VR lets us see what the officers at the scene see and work through it together,” Nelson says.
Most states require annual training programs for law enforcement that cover everything from firearm proficiency, driving, racial profiling, and domestic abuse, through classroom-style talks, practice drills, and reenactments. Some cities hire crisis actors and elaborate sets to simulate drug deals and prostitution stings. These setups, however, are expensive and time-consuming, and difficult to tailor to mirror individual stations experiences. And so many police departments are, like the Lodi PD, turning to VR.
The NYPD runs active shooter drills in VR, and Chicago PD officers learn best practices for autistic suspects through VR simulations. In Houston, Texas, many of the police officers working in the vice squad have spent time with a virtual reality program that shows them how a sex trafficker…