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Using Virtual Reality In Police Training To Create A Space For Understanding

Closeup of bearded young man wearing virtual reality goggles in modern coworking studio. Smartphone using with VR headset. Horizontal, blurred.
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Virtual reality training allows officers to gain insight and understanding, and hopefully empathy, says Marquette professor Nakia Gordon.

Over the course of WUWM's Policing in Wisconsin series, we’ve been highlighting stories about what’s changed and what hasn't since the protests last summer. While there are some bills circulating in Madison, a lot of people calling for change don’t feel the legislation being debated goes far enough, while others say a march toward middle ground is what is needed.

WUWM's LaToya Dennis reports on the impact one group of people hope virtual reality content could have when it comes to creating a space for understanding.

Eddie Johnson says the first time he realized the possibility of virtual reality training for police officers he was blown away. Johnson retired at the end of 2019 but spent his entire career as a Chicago police officer and his last four years working as superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.

“If there’s a way to help those officers feel the stress and the strain of those actual events with the community then that’s the way to go because a lot of the problem is in departments all over the country, we put officers in communities they have no idea about how these … the ethnic part of it works,” he says.

Johnson recounts a time when he and his partner were called for a domestic dispute. Research shows that domestic violence calls are one of the most dangerous for police.

“Husband and wife and three kids. They started yelling, I mean to the top of their lungs and we’re in a small little tiny apartment. My partner, I saw him put his hand on his gun and I grabbed it and held down on his hand and said I got this,” Johnson says.

Johnson says the problems virtual reality can solve for police officers are multifaceted. He says not only would it allow officers to receive use of force training more often, the training could be brought to them instead of having to get everyone to the academy. And Johnson says it can put officers in real life situations that change depending on the perspective and response.

Extended Lake Effect Conversation

But for others working on the project, the goal is a bit different. Nakia Gordon is a psychology professor at Marquette University. She’s the researcher of the group.

“I want the police to stop killing Black people. That’s what I want,” she says.

Gordon says the virtual reality content the group has developed allows people to gain insight and understanding — and hopefully empathy. The scenario involves a Black man in the midst of a mental health crisis.

“You are just dropped into the scenario and it has already started unfolding. And so one perspective is between the community member and one police officer who has their gun drawn on that community member. And so depending on how you turn your head because it’s a 360 degree live action video. Right, so you can look all around the room. It’s a little bit intimidating,” she says.

Gordon says that once the back story is given, you find out that the person at the center of the mental health crisis is college educated and was recently laid off from his job at the bank. He’s described as a great father and loving husband.

“It was after that back story for the community member where you saw the highest level of empathy for both police officers and the community members who we tested,” says Gordon.

A group of Chicago residents and police officers both tested the scenario. Still, Gordon admits it’s not perfect. In this virtual reality scenario the community member is an upstanding citizen, but what if they had a criminal past?

“I don’t think we would have gotten the same results that we got,” she says.

Even with that said, Gordon believes in the project.

“The beauty of this project is that we want to bring police and community members toward the middle so to speak. Whether or not there’s a true middle or where people stand, I don’t know. But bring them closer together,” she says.

Gordon says one of the greatest things about this virtual reality content is that it was truly developed in partnership with police and members of the community.

This project is being spearheaded by Milwaukee-based 371 Productions. It says it’s now ready to move into phase two, which means getting it to police departments and community groups in places outside of Chicago to test out.

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