Bill Handel

Bill Handel

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LAPD Uses VR to Help Handle Mental Health Calls

KFI's Steve Gregory gets an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look into LAPD's virtual reality training program

Officers now have a way to learn about the streets of LA without being there. The process of Virtual Reality has been around for a few years and was mostly tied to gaming, but now it’s becoming a common practice for law enforcement training throughout the country.

The LAPD is only one of two agencies in the United States using a VR program to train officers on de-escalation and use of force options. The company V-Armed in New York designed the equipment and software and is working with the LAPD on site to improve and customize the training.

I had the chance to visit the setup at the LAPD Academy’s Elysian Park campus. The entire VR program has been installed inside the gymnasium including 104 cameras positioned in the rafters to help create the 360-degree view inside the virtual world. Sergeant John Lebel is the Officer in Charge of the VR Unit and says they received the hardware in September of 2022.

Lebel took me to an area above the gym floor, a sort of control tower, where he and his training staff can direct the various scenarios in real time. The monitors show multiple windows representing each of the officer’s point of view. We see what they see.

The officers are briefed on the scenario and then put on the gear which includes sensors on the ankles and wrists, a small backpack which houses the power unit, transmission and receive points, and the VR goggles/headset.

The officers walk downstairs to the gym floor and gather in a group. The trainer instructs them to put on their goggles so the units can all be calibrated simultaneously. Back upstairs in the control room the trainer has attached the officer’s names to the avatars inside the virtual world. This way, trainers can pinpoint activity to a specific person, including their breathing, heart rate, and visual tracking – this is interesting because trainers can also see where an officer is looking at the time of an incident, including an exchange with a suspect, even where they look during a shootout.

Officers calibrate their gear before the scenario begins - photo by Steve Gregory

Lebel says all this data helps to determine what an officer is going through during an encounter, peaceful or violent. And how they can use that data to improve training.

Members of the training staff play the various roles, a homeless person, agitator, suspect, etc. Using a special tool that looks like a flashlight, various weapons can be embedded and visualized into the virtual world. Officers carry prop guns which are designed to simulate a real service weapon that sound like gunfire and can be tracked into a database every time it is fired.

I watched the first scenario; a distraught woman is holding a gun to her head. From the outside, you see a group of people with goggles walking around on a wooden gym floor with their hands on each other’s shoulder, from the inside, you see officers coordinating a pattern to protect themselves and address the woman in distress. In the virtual world you see a woman holding a gun to her head on Venice Beach. It’s realistic enough to accept the surroundings and absorb the sights and sounds. While the woman keeps shouting at officers about the troubles in her life the trainer is telling the officers how to proceed, both in their physical approach and the words to say to help de-escalate the situation. Eventually, the woman gives up and puts the gun down; the trainer announces, ‘Code 4’ (All Clear) and the scenario is over. The group then heads up to the stage inside the gym to watch the recording of their scenario and get a debrief by the trainer.

Click here to see me put on the gear and watch some LAPD officers go through a scenario.

It's time for me to try it out. I put on the gear; I'm playing the role of a teacher in a school shooting scenario. My job is to run outside of the auditorium and tell officers the location of the shooters. I put on the goggles and calibrate them. Then, I’m teleported into the virtual world. Now I'm standing inside an auditorium with dark red seats, stairs and a full stage. Next to me is an officer who took on the role of school shooter. On cue, the officer next to me shoots some warning shots and I run through the doors – it is bright and sunny; on my left, police cars, on my right another car, on the pavement in front of me the body of someone who was shot. I run through the middle as I continue to hear gunfire and see glass shatter from the cars on both sides of me.

Putting on the gear and preparing for a scenario - photo by Steve Gregory

While I’m standing behind a car an officer to my left is fatally hit. There’s blood splatter and he goes down, I hear the thud of his body hit the ground. It is traumatic to see, even in the virtual world. When a person is killed their avatar turns into an opaque color and it remains still. The all clear is given and when I remove my goggles my eyes acclimate to the natural light and I soon realize I’m back on the wooden floor of the gym and all the officers are safe and accounted for. This was an amazing experience, and I can see how officers will benefit from this type of immersion training.

The entire setup was paid for through private funding. The company V-Armed is in Brooklyn, NY. One of their representatives is working on site with the LAPD to offer real time support.


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