Local law enforcement and community members met at the Ohio University Police Department at The Ridges on Saturday to demonstrate a new virtual reality police training program that encourages officers to consider ways de-escalate situations.
Ohio University’s Voinovich School and the Scripps College of Communication partnered with local law enforcement to form the initiative in response to concerns over law enforcement safety, public trust and de-escalation of dangerous situations.
The Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative, which partnered with Ohio University to create the programs, is designed to involve entire communities and bring together law enforcement officers, community stakeholders and public administrators together to reduce the use of force, teach de-escalation techniques and improve law enforcement outcomes for both the community and police.
Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith said he was “very impressed by the scenarios” presented Saturday.
“It's the way of the future in law enforcement and we need to embrace it,” Smith said of the strategies offered during the programs.
The programs were produced by Ohio University's Game Research and Immersive Design, a program at the Scripps College of Communication that focuses on virtual reality. Virtual reality is a simulated experience achieved by wearing goggles that display images across the user’s vision.
The program scripts were written by GRID Lab professor Eric Williams in collaboration with Athens Police Department auxiliary commander and forensic psychologist David Malawista.
Malawista said the script was written and rewritten a dozen times as the writers tweaked the scenarios and received input from stakeholders.
“These are significant messages law enforcement needs to hear,” Malawista said. “And it’s a message delivered in a way that’s much more likely to be ingrained.”
Williams, who has gained international renown for his work on alternative media platforms like VR, said he hopes the programs can immerse law enforcement.
“I hope that it increases the ability for law enforcement officers to be trained in ways that are interesting to them and really connect with real-world experiences,” Williams said.
Two programs, filmed in Athens County, were available for demonstration.
One program, called the “Dion” scenario, follows repeated negative interactions between a Black man and law enforcement during routine stops, to demonstrate how such interactions can lead people of color to distrust law enforcement. The Dion program offers strategies that can help officers calm scenarios where someone has had numerous negative experiences with law enforcement.
Smith said the program shows improper ways to treat people during traffic stops, such as using words like “boy” or other language that could make someone angry or anxious.
“It was done for that reason, to let people see [that] ... we don't want to treat people like in this scenario,” Smith said.
Darryl Graves, chair of the Muskingum County Social Justice Coalition and a Black man, said the way officers talk to the public matters. Graves spent 20 years as a state employee working in Ohio prisons, including four years as a corrections officer.
“I think it’s important to understand the power of your words,” he said.
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, who also tried the Dion program, found the simulation “instructive.”
“It was really interesting for me to watch the first scenario where words being used are not helpful, or rather, they escalate issues,” Patterson said.
The other program, “Chet” (which this reporter experienced), followed an interaction between law enforcement and a veteran with PTSD. In one scenario, the officers fail to recognize that Chet is having a post-traumatic crisis, leading officers to shoot Chet. In the other scenario, officers take time to learn about Chet’s deteriorated mental state and how to safely de-escalate the situation.
Smith said deputies in Athens face this type of situation regularly. While the officers followed procedure in the first scenario, he said the program did a good job of showing that taking a different tack can lead to better outcomes.
“Those are calls we go on very often, it's a good insight on de-escalation,” Smith said.
Law enforcement officers and communities in Appalachian that want training and development are often hindered by small populations, low budgets and distance from training centers, said John Born, executive in residence at the Scripps College of Communication and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and former director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety.
“Athens and the law enforcement community in Appalachia, generally speaking — like a lot of other resources — is last in line,” Born said.
Ohio University and law enforcement partners are hoping to make the VR training experience affordable and relatively time-efficient for law enforcement in the region, he said.
The VR training programs could benefit agencies beyond Appalachia, said Patterson.
"How great would it be to be able to use this product in the urban areas?” he said.
Giving officers the chance to observe and practice de-escalation skills will help the public too, as Graves noted.
“When I get pulled over, I shouldn’t feel my life is in danger," he said. "I should feel like, ‘Crap, I’m going to get a ticket.’”
This story was updated on August 27 to correct errors in descriptions of and statements attributed to Darryl Graves.