The virtues of virtual law-enforcement training

WILLIAMSBURG, VA - At the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, law enforcement personnel spend a lot of time in simulators.  High-end digital environments can provide safer and cheaper repetitions for skills that range from high-speed driving to the use of firearms in "active shooter" situations. 

"Ammunition is very expensive," FLETC CIO Sandy Peavy explained.  Simulation "gives you a lot of trigger pulls," and trainees who do both simulator and live-fire training score better than those who do live-fire training alone.   Similarly, pushing vehicles to their limits in real-life training comes with obvious limitations.

Yet the simulation that is arguably most useful at FLETC involves no explosions or squealing tires.  It's an avatar-driven tool that helps law enforcement personnel hone their interviewing skills. 

Peavy, who spoke Oct. 26 at ACT-IAC's Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., explained that the Avatar-Based Interview Simulator, or ABIS, provides a "fully interactive, fully immersive environment" where trainees can learn what it takes to coax information out of a traumatized witness.  

The simulation puts agents in a living room with "Heidi," the ABIS avatar,  who witnessed a friend's kidnapping the night before.  The system now allows for some 15,000 question/answer combinations, with Heidi's replies depending on how much rapport has been established and how well the trainee has read her body language. 

The cost savings are significant -- training sessions with live actors get expensive quickly and are difficult to scale consistently.  Peavy, however, noted a less-obvious benefit.  "Young people today ... can't carry on a conversation," she said. 

Having grown up communicating by text message and social media, Peavy said, many trainees simply don't know how to engage on a personal level in a high-stress situation.   Interviewing is a basic skill, she noted, and "they're having trouble with that. ... "But they're comfortable with an avatar."

ABIS has also allowed FLETC to dramatically expand the training time devoted to interviewing, Peavy said.  Students can even come in for additional repetitions after hours, and the system itself delivers specific feedback after each session, without the need for a FLETC instructor to be involved.  "It gives them a big opportunity to practice one of the most important skills that they use," she said.

ABIS is not new; Peavy said FLETC has been using it for about five years and that the core technology was borrowed from training systems that the Defense Department developed and funded.  "It's a great example of sharing technology" across government, she told GCN, adding that the military is now looking to incorporate some of FLETC's enhancements back into troop training.

Nor is the technology perfect.  "Heidi" may have 15,000 possible responses, but it's still a bit like interviewing Siri or a GPS navigation system.  More significantly, ABIS requires trainees to be in a room at FLETC, using a dedicated system to do the training.   And since FLETC trains 96 different federal law enforcement entities, as well as state, local and tribal personnel, there simply aren't enough system hours to go around.

The ultimate goal, Peavy said, would be to make ABIS web-based, "so that students can use it anywhere."

"What we're really talking about," she said, "is an on-demand government in an Uber world."

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN, as well as General Manager of Public Sector 360.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.

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