police making arrest (Jose HERNANDEZ Camera 51/Shutterstock.com)

VR scenarios help DHS research arrest-related fatalities

A two-week use-of-force simulation experiment (SIMEX) used virtual reality (VR) to study factors that might affect arrest-related fatalities.

Conducted early last month by the Department of Homeland Security at the MITRE National Security Experimentation Lab in McLean, Va., the SIMEX simulated law enforcement officer and civilian encounters in an outdoor setting. More than 30 people participated, including officers from across the country, mental health experts and members of civilian review boards. The Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute and George Mason University also provided support.

“Given last summer’s arrest-related fatalities, our office -- the Office of State and Local Law Enforcement -- wanted to look at this problem not from what we thought, but what was evidence-based, rooted in science,” OSLLE Associate Director Lori Sims said.

The office teamed with the Modeling and Simulation Technology Center (MS-TC) at DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate to work with Mitre, which operates S&T’s System Engineering Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC).

The goal was to determine “how can we use these technologies to put people in realistic environments and then study these events as they unfold,” said Syed Mohammad, MS-TC director.

“We’ve moved to virtual reality to add fidelity to our experimental environment and fidelity to our experimental findings,” added Jim Dear, SIMEX program manager at Mitre. “I want people to believe they’re in a different world.”

Mitre created the simulated environment using Unity Technologies’ 3D software and overlapped it with VR. To minimize bias, the scenarios unfolded with almost no scripting. A dispatcher would send officers to a suspicious scene at, say, a park, and the encounter would develop from there. Each scenario run involved two law enforcement officers, one mental health professional, three bystanders, one suspect, one dispatch operator and one scenario observer from police oversight boards.

The team tweaked the simulations to study how changes affected officers’ decision to use force based on several elements: suspect resistance, suspect armed, mental health professional present, suspect race and suspect mental state. Mitre automatically collected gigabytes of data in real time around those factors and shared it with an analytics team, which is still analyzing the information and compiling it into a report due to DHS next month.

“We have data collection going on in the Unity software that is automatically going into databases, and we have analytical tools that are used to analyze that data after the fact,” Dear said. “Data is collected not so much from the headsets, but from the databases and from the gaming environment that the headsets oversee.”

Data includes the precise moment an officer reached for a weapon or fired a shot in the simulated environment as well as qualitative data from surveys that each participant answered after each run. “Sometimes you’ll look at the statistics and that only gives you part of the story until you find out what the operators actually think about what happened,” he said. “We put all that data together to create a picture of why things happened.”

For the first time in the 74 SIMEXs Mitre has run, biometrics, such as skin temperature and heart rate, were also tracked to help determine stress.

“That’s important because sometimes the operator will say things in a survey that may not necessarily be 100% accurate for whatever reasons, and the biometric data might either back it up or discount it,” Dear said.

The benefits of this SIMEX, which was funded by about $1 million across DHS, are two-fold, Sims said: “Not only do we get insight on this really tough topic, but we also get to expand upon the work in the VR environment and introduce that technology into a discipline or a field – law enforcement – that may not have traditionally or even gotten to that place yet.”

Now that the VR SIMEX infrastructure is in place to facilitate the execution and data collection of scenarios, the technology can be used any time DHS wants to study actions and outcomes, Mohammad said.

A SIMEX last year, for example, used VR to study active-shooter situations in schools. The resulting report recommended that schools consider hiring a school resource officer, ensure the officer’s situational awareness, keep classroom doors locked and develop a communications strategy to connect students, teachers, administrative staff and law enforcement.

“From a research perspective, this is really the tip of the iceberg,” Mohammad said. “SIMEX, when you look at it from a macro perspective, it’s the full infrastructure to conduct experiments in a controlled manner using virtual technologies, using simulation technologies, using a whole host of sensing technologies to collect all of this information.”

In the future, Mitre is looking to enable VR use by people in multiple locations, added Scott Randels, director of the program management office for FFRDCs.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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