"Have you ever used a taser before?"
"You prefer not to have a taser?"
"How many times did the gun go off in the car?"
On September 16, 2014, former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson spent hours being asked questions in front of a grand jury that examined the minutiae of every decision he made the day he shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Wilson was ultimately cleared of all wrongdoing, but Brown's death has been revisited countless times in the news as it ignited international protests, catalyzed the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and prompted a huge re-examination of how communities of color should be policed.
In the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, police departments around the country have tried to revamp their training programs. Some are integrating high-tech, immersive virtual reality simulators—similar to those that have been used by therapists as a form of exposure therapy for PTSD treatment—to re-create scenarios like the one that resulted in Brown's death. VR is helping officers develop their decision-making skills and situational awareness, and, crucially, getting them to examine the unconscious biases that guide decisions in critical moments.
The reality training programs use a set-up called CAVE, or cave automatic virtual environment. (Yes, the "C" in CAVE stands for "cave," a reference to Plato.) CAVE is an empty room with huge HD screens, usually four or five, that encircle trainees, responding to their every move in real-time as they move through simulations. Trainees fire and aim with replica weapons that have lasers which indicate if trainees have hit their mark. The United States Border Patrol is one of dozens of government agencies and departments turning to this set-up to train officers for high-pressure scenarios.
The challenge in virtual reality training isn't constructing a believable world for officers to practice shooting in, it's addressing the deeply embedded prejudices that govern how we act in split-second decisions. When Wired's Issie Lapowsky visited a training center in New Jersey using VirTra simulation technology, the center's director, Scott Digiralomo, explained how the training scenarios can reveal officer's unconscious biases.
For instance, in one video, a shooter is on the loose in a movie theater. As the officer surveys the scene, a black off-duty cop rushes through a door on the officer’s left with a gun in his hand. The trainer can run a scenario in which the officer’s badge is visible in his other hand or a scenario in which his badge is on his hip and not immediately apparent to the officer in training. According to Digiralomo, when the off-duty officer has the badge on his hip, the trainee kills him 80 percent of the time.
VR is in its early stages still, but a 2015 study found that it can be effective in "unconsciously building a repertoire of realistic experiences as a reference library for the moment of decision in real life shoot/don’t shoot incidents." Ideally, it would teach those trainees not to shoot the black off-duty officer before they're actually faced with the life-or-death decision.
Robert McCue is the general manager of VR training company Milo. Talking to The Guardian, McCue says VR training can also be a "time machine" for departments to revisit disastrous events and analyze what went wrong. Some of the training scenarios are drawn from real life incidents. “You can go back and redo these incidents,” he said. “In a simulator, they have second chances. Out on the street, they don’t.”
Of course, stepping into a $300,000 machine won't actually bring back Michael Brown. Or John Crawford. Or Philando Castile, Aiyana Jones, or Korryn Gaines. But, President Obama and many activists calling for police reform are betting on these revamped training programs to change how officers react during confrontations and ideally, save lives.
As a direct result of Brown's death and the Ferguson protests, Obama created the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a coalition of scholars, activists, government officials, and law enforcement officers dedicated to curbing police brutality. Their implementation guide suggests recalibrating how police officers are taught. In a section called "training as a tool to drive change," the guide suggests officers receive training that emphasizes "procedural justice, implicit bias, and de-escalation/use of force."
But what exactly does that mean? Many are skeptical, like Brittany Packnett, the executive director of Teach For America St. Louis and a member of the President's task force. She told TIME that training only scratches the surface of the severely embedded prejudices we need to address in order to make substantive change.
“We are dealing with issues that are deeply rooted in systemic racism and oppression and those roots go all the way back to the founding of this country,” Packet said. “It’s unrealistic to think that in a year's time we’re going to uproot systemic oppression and racism.”
There are only a few police departments and government agencies (such as the U.S. Border Patrol) using VR. With roughly 18,000 police departments across the country, it's difficult to implement a single standard for training that will work in all environments. Additionally, VR training is costly and time consuming, especially considering that nearly half of all police departments have fewer than a dozen officers and are already operating on outdated technology. In an investigation this past August after the death of Freddie Gray, the Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department's technology was inadequate, to say the least.
Investigators found that that the BPD has only 17 computers available to train its nearly 4,000 employees. Training programs are outdated and lack a tool for assessing the proficiency of recruits. The tracking system to determine who needs training or has failed a class amounts to a single officer updating an Excel spreadsheet with the activities of thousands of police. For this reason, the report said, officers often miss “significant amounts” of required training.
Outdated technology aside, it's far too optimistic to imagine that a mere simulation could remedy what compelled Darren Wilson to tell a grand jury that Michael Brown looked "like a demon" during the confrontation that ended in Brown's death. Or why, when the New Yorker inquired as to whether he can still go out in public since Ferguson, he responded: “We try to go somewhere—how do I say this correctly?—with like-minded individuals. You know. Where it’s not a mixing pot.” Most shockingly, when asked if he would have done anything differently to prevent the killing he said, "No."
But using virtual reality in this way is part of a huge, generational shift in training police officers that seeks to be more responsible and, most crucially, preventive instead of reactionary. For most officers, bias training is often just a day-long workshop provided by a third party or worse, a questionnaire. And while technology like body cameras can be helpful in holding cops accountable after the fact, VR could possibly be used to stop police brutality before it even happens.