Police Reform: Immersive Technology can Transform Law Enforcement

But we have to go beyond current application to bring change

Louis Byrd
Jul 13, 2020 · 10 min read

Whenever a cop car pulls up beside or behind me while driving, I get nervous. My mouth becomes dry, leading to that little white crusty stuff in the corners of my lips. My breathing becomes irregular, and my heart speeds up enough for me to feel the anxiety consuming my body.

Becoming a father has killed the speed demon inside me. I don’t drink much alcohol, so a DUI is not on my radar. I don’t smoke weed, so you won’t find any nickle or dime bags in my glove box. I don’t even ride with the beat slappin’ from my Boise speakers in my Jeep.

In other words, I’m a saint when it comes to the law. Only thing I may be considered guilty of is DWB, Driving While Black.

History has taught us law enforcement and being Black is like mixing oil and water.

Growing up my mother programmed me to respond a certain way around police officers. If ever pulled over keep both hands on the steering wheel; be respectful; drive with your license in a high visible location; keep your insurance and registration near by; only move when instructed to do so; make good eye contact, but do not stare or mean mug; memorize their badge number and name.

It’s a lesson taught to many Black boys and girls.

So far I have not had a terrible encounter with a police officer, just know that I am knocking on wood. Most officers I have met have been respectful and simply doing their job. The only time I have ever felt truly threatened was when I was jogging in my neighborhood and a squad car tailed me for several blocks — that is a feeling I never want again.

I should not feel nervousness or fear in the presence of someone who is their to help. If any feeling should be associated, it should be that of comfort and safety. But it’s not.

Since the protest for social justice in the past several weeks, there has been a trumpeting call for police reform. I am not sure if defunding the police is the right move or how realistic the ask is, but what I am sure of is police departments, nation wide, are in need of reform.

This reform of law enforcement will need to evaluate weaponry, hand-to-hand combat techniques, deescalation tactics, accountability measures, and bias mitigation. New systems need to be set in place throughout the entire law enforcement ecosystem.

Police officers have a hard job. One call, traffic stop, or search and seizure could put their lives in danger. The amount of stress they are under, the desensitizing they can experience from seeing horrific crime scenes, all of it can take a toll on a person. I also recognize that police officers are simply human beings who swore an oath to protect and serve; however, at the end of the day they are humans, and if you are human, you are biased.

The inherent biases police officers carry obviously impact certain communities and people more than others. Their bias is a different side of the same coin of my bias toward interacting with police officers. When we look deeper, their is not a racial problem in policing, rather it stems from the larger racial biases that exist in our society.

According to research conducted by Mark Hoekstra, an economist at Texas A&M University in College Station — based on information from more than two million 911 calls in two US cities, he concluded that white officers dispatched to Black neighborhoods fired their guns five times as often as Black officers dispatched for similar calls to the same neighborhoods.

Now, the scientist in me recognizes collecting data from more U.S. cities would be beneficial in fortifying such a claim, but history supplies empirical data, which can serve as support to Hoekstras’ findings and conclusion.

But how can we address these issues of policing? We know that racial bias is playing a major role in the inequalities to the concept of protecting and serving.

We know there is not enough data collected to accurately come up with sustainable solutions although there should be, or at least a valid effort to begin to collect, because in the words of one of the fathers of modern business management, Peter Drucker:

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. ~ Peter Drucker

Immersive technology training can help, but we have to address the cause of the problems, not the symptoms.

Immersive technology is any tech that uses Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), or Mixed Reality (MR) — which all fall under the umbrella term of Extended Reality (XR).

While these transformative technologies are typically associated with marketing and gamification experiences, I believe the true potential in these technologies lie in educating people. Specifically, immersive technology can be used to teach empathy.

When it comes to bias mitigation, the best tool is to raise empathetic levels within a persons view of the world. This understanding of someone else experiences is how we, as a society, can began to break down the systemic walls built and supported by inequity.

Leveraging this technology offers law enforcement (LE) agencies an opportunity to put their trainees and/or workforce into the experiences of another person.

Immersive technology learning enhances what is defined by psychologist as, cognitive ecology, which is the study of thought in the context of the social and natural environments — in laymen terms, it’s the mind-body connection to the world around you.

This understanding of cognitive ecology explains why anxiety builds up inside of me when I am around a police officer. The social and natural environment in which I was raised has conditioned me to, in ways, be fearful of police officers. The same is true for some police officers, their social and natural environments have conditioned them to perceive Blackness (and Browness) as a threat.

But that is where immersive technology learning has the potential to transform cognition, which is, by definition, how human and other animal brains process information, or think.

Main Advantages of Immersive Technology Learning (ITL):

  1. Retention of training: Unlike traditional training where after the first month 90% of the training content is forgotten, research suggest ITL offers a 75–90% knowledge retention. This occurs because in immersive worlds there are fewer distractions around, causing people to focus.
  2. Attention is Demanded: Unlike traditional forms of training, ITL captures 100% of attention. Through gamification models, storytelling, right to fail safely, and learning by doing — the technology keeps people in tune with what is going on.
  3. Collect Data: Through ITL, there is a huge opportunity to collect data on how people, specifically trainees, respond to scenarios. Immersive technology allows for tracking body movement, behavior, gestures, stress level and much more information, which will allow for better understanding. As mentioned before, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Currently, immersive technology learning is being mostly used to train people on tactical skills such as assembly of devices, how to operate machinery, or perform medical procedures. In law enforcement VR is being used for shoot/don’t shoot drills. I believe it can also train people how to interact more empathetic with other people.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, individuals with untreated severe mental illness are involved in at least 1 in 4 and as many as half of all fatal police shootings, the study reports. Because of this prevalence, reducing encounters between on-duty law enforcement and individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases may represent the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States.

Axon, an empathy development VR training system for law enforcement, is addressing this need. Currently they are focused on improving crisis intervention and deescalation skills for officers that involve mental health situations. At face value this approach makes sense.

However, when we start to think and look deeper into mental health, much like everything in America, racial disparities have a major impact.

Rates of mental illnesses in African Americans are similar with those of the general population. However, disparities exist in regard to mental health care services. African Americans often receive poorer quality of care and lack access to culturally competent care.

Compared with whites with the same symptoms, African Americans are more frequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and less frequently diagnosed with mood disorders. Differences in how African Americans express symptoms of emotional distress may contribute to misdiagnosis. Black people with mental health conditions, particularly schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and other psychoses are more likely to be incarcerated than people of other races.

Why are racial disparities in mental illnesses important? One can correlate how the inherent biases associated with race in America are linked directly to lethal killings of the mentally ill by law enforcement.

If a police officer arrives to call of a person dealing with mental illness, there is a high likelihood that if the person happens to be Black or any race other than white, that person is likely not going to live. One can argue that is a huge assumption I am making, but America has shown us time and time again, this is fact.

My point, we need immersive technology learning systems that teach about race, in addition to mental health.

Axon has the right idea, but my fear is that the company, again mostly dominated by white men like many other technology companies, are not thinking inclusively or in depth about the crisis in America.

Police officers need training around race as I believe that is the greatest cancer in this land. Immersive technology can put officers in the body/mind of a Black person who is being pulled over during a routine traffic stop — the voice inside our heads that start with “Oh sh!t, here comes the cops. The probably running my plates. My tags are good…please don’t pull me over. Sh!t…here we go. I didn’t do anything! Just breathe...breathe...breathe…”

Immersive technology learning can put a person through the scenario of dealing with an confrontational officer. One requesting you to “Step out of the vehicle. Place your hands behind your head. STOP RESISTING!!!!”

I believe it is imperative for police officers to build understanding on what is going through our minds when they come around.

We gain empathy and a more comprehensive understanding of the human experience by embodying multiple and seemingly incompatible perspectives. What makes immersive technology so powerful is that it helps us learn to deal with cognitive dissonance, a skill that has been signaled as increasingly important in the coming age of experience.

These types of training should be part of the job requirement, performed on a regular basis. But training is only one aspect of the use case for immersive technology.

Immersive technology can be used during the recruitment process to better understand the mental state of a candidate and their inherent biases, allowing recruiters to evaluate for job fit. Critics to such screening processes believe raising the bar for hiring might be impractical because many police departments are already struggling to attract and retain highly qualified candidates. However, research shows immersive technology can also be used in recruitment efforts.By leveraging VR experiences via immersive tech company, Visualise, the British Army received 66% more recruitment applications. This same concept could potentially be used to recruit police officers.

The Future:

In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as part of their first and second comic book series, gave birth to the Danger Room — the facility in which the mutant protectors, the X-Men, trained to hone their powers and combat skills.

The original Danger Room was very analog in nature, built with flamethrowers, projectile missiles, and many mechanical parts. Over time, the Danger Room evolved into a self-aware, almost living organism thanks to alien technology. Through holograms and enhanced cognitive stimulus, the X-Men where able to have real world experiences in battle. Sounds familiar, right?

X-Men: The Last Stand was released on May 26, 2006, by 20th Century Fox (Danger Room Scene)

Today, immersive technology is mostly experienced through ungodly, goofy looking, VR headsets and sometimes dedicated virtual rooms, but I believe within the next 15–20 years we are going to start experiencing “Danger Room” type facilities. The only challenge, like most things in the world, is going to be the cost for adoption at a mass level.

Imagine how impactful this type of experience would be for law enforcement. Officers can train, constantly, in real life scenarios. Mistakes made during training will not lead to another series of civil unrest.

This type of immersive experience could better prepare officers for real world scenarios. Too often when it comes to lethal shootings, especially those of unarmed Black people, police officers say they felt threatened. They see a cell phone, wallet, comb and assume it is a gun — before thinking, their split second reaction is to neutralize the threat. The rationale is the cop felt threatened.

Through a more immersive experience such as the X-Men Danger Room, officers can train and in time learn how to make better decisions while on the job. In addition, training modules could better simulate real life scenarios and how to better deescalate a volatile situation.

These training could address race issues, mental illness, hostage situations, bomb threats, mass shooter scenarios, terrorist attacks, and much more.

In addition, these training facilities can be used to educate the public on how policing works, allowing the opportunity to build trust between the community and law enforcement.

This is what we need to build better police departments.

Will immersive technology solve all the problems in law enforcement? No, because it is only a series of tools. Currently the systems in the market are a great start toward building empathy, but these systems still lack inclusivity throughout, therefore not reaching the fullest potential and need.

The reality is the entire system of law enforcement needs to be addressed from recruiting, accountability measures, disciplinary action, community engagement, training, and most importantly, bias mitigation. While immersive technology is simply a tool(s), these tools offer an opportunity to literally change the minds of police officers as it relates to protecting and serving. Ultimately, the real change starts outside the technology and begins with the individuals willingness to change.

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Louis Byrd

Written by

Tea Lover | Creative + Engineer | Director of Experience Design @VMLY&R | Chief Visionary Officer @ Goodwim Design | Woke before it was a trend!

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Louis Byrd

Written by

Tea Lover | Creative + Engineer | Director of Experience Design @VMLY&R | Chief Visionary Officer @ Goodwim Design | Woke before it was a trend!

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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