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Game designer Jed Merrill hopes virtual reality will help police officers de-escalate real-life confrontations with civilians, beginning in Utah.
Merrill and a team of five other developers and engineers all University of Utah graduate students have spent more than a year working on "B.E.S.T. Police Training," a simulation that tests officers' use of body language, tone of voice, word choice and physical proximity when dealing with civilians.
The team is working with Utah's police academy to hone the "B.E.S.T." simulation before officers start using it sometime next year to reinforce the best ways to deal with agitated people.
As far as Merrill knows, this is the first virtual-reality simulator to focus on de-escalation. Other simulators Merrill has seen deal more with whether an officer would be legally justified in shooting someone.
But "you want officers to be thinking more than just shoot or don't shoot at times like that," he said.
After a number of controversial police shootings across the nation in the past few years, more de-escalation training has become a persistent demand from police watchdogs.
Right in the "B.E.S.T." development team's home of Salt Lake City, an officer shot and killed a man, James Barker, after a confrontation between the two escalated. Prosecutors deemed Officer Matthew Taylor's use of force justified, and his union called his behavior "professional and respectful." Critics have countered that the shooting reflected a failure by Taylor to defuse the situation.
Body-camera footage of the moments before the January 2015 shooting showed Barker quickly shift his demeanor from calmly wary to outraged as Taylor repeatedly asked Barker for his name and said a neighbor reported he was acting suspiciously. When Taylor reached forward, Barker jumped back and then swung a snow shovel at Taylor.
"Most of the time when an officer shoots a civilian, it's found to be justified," Merrill said. But sometimes, "if you look at the footage that their body camera takes, there are several things that could probably have been done differently, like either they were too close to the person and got into their personal space. Maybe the person was off their meds, for example. Or, sometimes, body language communicates kind of a more aggressive stance.
"And once you escalate things," he added, "it's kind of hard to back down off of that."
That is where the "B.E.S.T." simulator comes in.
Police academy officials were intrigued with the idea and invited the "B.E.S.T." developers to watch real training. Wade Bruer, a training lieutenant at the academy, and another staffer have also been testing "B.E.S.T." and providing feedback. Besides that, Merrill also draws on the many books and articles he has read, as well as his experience as an Iraq War veteran, when designing the simulation.
Bruer likes what he has seen so far. He tried out an early version of the simulator, donning a virtual-reality headset for the first time in his life. He immediately found himself in a digital house as an officer responding to a report of an agitated man in the garage. Exercising what he knows about de-escalation, Bruer made sure to give the man some space instead of closing in on him. The simulation responded in kind: The man simmered down and Bruer could start talking to him.
"And wouldn't that be good for us to have as police trainers," Bruer said, "to have something like that to reinforce what we're talking about [in the classroom]."
Bruer envisions the simulator supplementing the academy's existing curriculum, which includes role playing with actors. Not only could the academy use "B.E.S.T." to reinforce new officers' training, but Bruer also imagines setting up ongoing training for sworn officers to hone their skills with it, as well.
The simulator will never replace the academy's live training with actors, "but it can definitely be a positive augmentation … or a supplement," Bruer said. "… It helps benefit public safety and ultimately the public."
Merrill expects the team to have a completed version of "B.E.S.T." next year, with updates as time goes on.
The simulator is designed to work with virtual-reality headsets made by Oculus Rift, which recently released its first commercial models. It is also compatible with headsets at The Void, a virtual-reality center in Lindon.
Merrill hopes to roll out "B.E.S.T." in Utah, but wants to attract law enforcement agencies and academies around the country.
It helps that "B.E.S.T." is enjoying some spotlight on a national stage. For the past few days, the development team was in San Francisco competing in the US Imagine Cup Finals, Microsoft's premier student technology competition. There, the simulation won first place in the cup's "World Citizenship" category, which is open to projects that address social issues.
Not bad for a simulator that began as a student project.
The "B.E.S.T." team members are graduate students in the University of Utah's game-design program and began developing "B.E.S.T." as their thesis project.
Though the students all will complete the program at the end of April, they plan to stick with the project after graduation.
The Entertainment Arts & Engineering (EAE) program at the U. is the No. 1 undergraduate school for studying game design, according to the Princeton Review's annual ranking of game-design schools, released in March. The EAE graduate program is ranked No. 3.