Oct 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Google's Jigsaw introduces VR simulator for police de-escalation

Image from Jigsaw Trainer VR product

Trainer's learning interface, shown during a domestic dispute scenario, allows instructors to evaluate police officers Des in virtual scenarios with different contexts. Credit: Jigsaw

Jigsaw, a technology incubator within Google, is rolling out a VR simulation platform designed to help train law enforcement on de-escalation techniques.

Why it matters: De-escalation training is increasingly popular but it's often costly. Jigsaw's VR product Trainer could help provide adaptable de-escalation practice on a tighter budget.

What's happening: De-escalation training aims to help police officers defuse a situation during a stop or investigation without resorting to violence by purposefully bringing down the level of confrontation, says Christy Lopez, who co-leads Georgetown Law School’s Program on Innovative Policing.

  • A 2020 study found one form of de-escalation training helped police in Louisville dramatically reduce use-of-force incidents and injuries to citizens and officers.
  • In June, the New York Police Department announced it would train all all 35,000 of its officers in de-escalation.
  • Yes, but: As of June, more than 20 states still don't require officers to receive de-escalation training, and there's often a long waiting list for departments that do want to undertake the training, which in its most extensive format requires role players and trainers acting our emergencies.

How it works: Axios was given a demo of Trainer by Kevin Rabsatt, lead software engineer at Jigsaw and the chief developer of Trainer, and his team at Jigsaw's offices in New York.

  • In Trainer's VR space, I played the role of a police officer dispatched to the site of a reported domestic disturbance. I could hear the crackle of the dispatcher's voice in my ear, and knocked on the door of the home.
  • I was greeted by an upset woman, and had to talk her down, mindful to keep my tone calm and not crowd her in the virtual space — two techniques that are a key part of de-escalation.
  • In a normal Trainer exercise, instructors can use the platform to check whether an officer hit assigned objectives, including maintaining a safe distance and remaining calm.

Our thought bubble: Even with the graphics, which are closer to a video game than real life, the experience felt stressful and unpredictable.

  • "When you use the technology, every time it's reacting to you and your movements, and so each time those moments are different," says Robin Engel, director of the IACP/UC Center for Police Research and Policy.
  • "That flexibility is what makes it feel like a real-life scenario."

What's next: Jigsaw will share the Trainer platform with a number of academic and civil society groups who will help further develop the system, test its efficacy and aim to potentially incorporate it into a formal police training program.

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