By Taylor Hartz
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NEW LONDON, Conn. — To everyone watching, New London Police Officer Daquan Stuckey was staring at a white-tile floor in a mostly empty room. But before his eyes, which were covered by bulky, dark virtual reality goggles, was the scene of a domestic violence call in a couple’s apartment.
“Can you tell me what happened?” Stuckey said, seemingly to no one, into a microphone attached to a headset that fit tight over his ears. On a screen in front of him, onlookers saw nothing more than a graphic of a floating head and an outline of a man meant to be a person involved in a domestic violence call.
One room over, another police officer clicked intently on a computer mouse, staring at a screen that allowed him to select from prompts like “pull weapon” and “attack.”
He was speaking to Stuckey not as a fellow officer, but as a character, guiding Stuckey through the department’s newest training tool, the Apex Officer virtual reality training simulator.
New London police are the first in Connecticut to get their hands on the new Apex Officer trainer, which gives officers complete control over a variety of simulated scenarios to help them train in real time for things they might face on duty. The 360-degree simulation fully immerses officers in a scene they might respond to in real life, such as a motor vehicle accident or a dispute in an apartment or an alleyway.
The department purchased the system through a grant from the Department of Justice. Because it is the first in the state to use the system, it was discounted from its nearly $100,000 price tag to about $62,500 with added upgrades like imitation Tasers.
The sights and sounds, including the dialogue and props placed in the virtual space ranging from firearms to beer cans — are all controlled by officers running the simulation as they guide their colleagues through a call. Just like in real life, officers don’t know what they’re stepping into when they put their goggles on and “go dark.”
Though New London Police Department Chief Brian Wright said the benefits of the new Apex program are limitless, its main purpose is to train officers in de-escalation tactics in scenarios that feel real, so that they are as prepared as possible when they are real.
Wright acknowledged that as emergency responders, police officers are often interacting with citizens on the worst day of their lives when emotions are high. His goal is to teach his officers to empathize with them and to develop a rapport that helps keeps everyone safe.
“At the end of the day, everybody is somebody’s mother, father, sister, brother, niece, nephew,” said Wright. “It’s important that we do whatever we can to sharpen our skill set to make sure that everyone involved in an incident walks away, goes on to see another day and has another opportunity to reinvent themselves and go out and do good.”
Sgt. Matt Cassiere said that although the system resembles a video game, they’re intent on stressing that it’s not a game; it’s a tool that supplements the other ongoing training and is always followed by a debriefing session where officers receive feedback and consider what improvements they might make.
“There are a hundred thousand things that could be going on in any situation,” said Cassiere. And with this system, they can train for many of them.
No live weapons are allowed in the room while officers are using the simulator, but officers are “armed” with imitations Tasers and handguns that they can “deploy” if the situation calls for it. The goal of the practices is to connect with subjects on a call and hopefully avoid the deployment of any force.
The system helps officers test out nonviolent strategies, try new ways of gaining voluntary compliance and improve decision-making.
When an officer puts on the goggles, they’re immersed in a new environment where they must first understand where they are, who they are talking to and whether everyone is safe. The training helps them sharpen their observation skills and practice being aware of their surroundings, Wright said.
Because they can’t do things like place a person in virtual handcuffs, they’re required to narrate their actions. This helps them learn to keep lines of communication open with their partners, other first responders, dispatchers, bystanders and subjects involved in a scenario. Talking through their actions also helps officers get oxygen in high-stress adrenaline-driven situations, and, in turn, helps them with decision-making, Wright said.
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“Ultimately we want everybody to be safe. We don’t want officers injured, we don’t want civilians injured, we don’t want third parties injuries,” said Wright.
On Nov. 28, two New London residents tried out the system and were tasked with responding to a virtual scene of a man who was loitering and, they learned later, having suicidal ideations.
The pair spoke with the man, practicing de-escalation conversational tactics they’d just witnessed officers use. But rather quickly, the character pulled a knife and the civilians deployed their simulated weapons.
The shock on their faces was visible. They didn’t think they would fire a weapon in that situation, but when immersed in it, they did.
Brandon Gonzalez-Cottrell, a commanding officer with the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club of New London County, said the full immersion made him better understand what officers go through.
“It went from 0 to 60 really quickly,” he said. “I have a newfound respect for our officers, our department, their training and everything they do really to protect our community.”
The department recognizes the limitations of the training system — it is not, in fact, reality. There were times during the training that Officer Christina Nocito could be heard saying things like “now I’m in a bush” — prompting a laugh from those observing. But it does provide a safe environment in which officers can try out different tactics without weapons or the much higher stakes of a real-life scenario.
“We’re able to do this in the safety of this room without any danger, other than someone maybe walking into some walls,” said Cassiere.
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