What's Happening?

What's Happening?

How a computer game can help improve policing

When The Schenectady Foundation decided to support a young software developer’s effort to create a virtual reality police de-escalation training program, we had no idea what the outcome would be. 

We certainly liked the idea of using cutting-edge technology to train law enforcement officers to defuse conflict using non-violent techniques. We also liked the developer’s unique approach to the project, which entailed meeting with people in the community and using their feedback to shape the program.  

Promising concepts don’t always succeed, but we were impressed enough with Dane Jennings, the CEO of the Schenectady-based software studio Catapult Games, to invest. Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/2022-blog-images/jenningsVR.jpg

That investment has paid off. 

Thanks in part to a state grant secured by Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, Jennings’ de-escalation training program will be implemented by the Schenectady Police Department. Jennings and Santabarbara are shown at right during a November press conference about the programming.

It’s a big milestone for an idea that came to Jennings in what he has described as a eureka moment in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. 

The 28-year-old describes de-escalation as “the art of saving lives and reducing harm. It gives people the skills to slow down and peacefully reduce conflict. … If someone’s having a crisis, just yelling at them doesn’t help.” 

The software, he said, gives officers the opportunity to practice de-escalation “in a safe virtual environment.” 

Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford supported Jennings’ project from the beginning.

De-escalation isn’t new to his officers - they undergo de-escalation training in the academy and annually as officers - but he saw Jennings’ program as an opportunity to further develop their talents for defusing conflict. 

“I thought it would be valuable for them to practice these skills more often,” Clifford said. “We’re really good at de-escalation, but I think we can do better. … De-escalation is an art. … It’s something you have to continuously practice to get as proficient at as possible.” 

Here’s how the virtual reality police de-escalation training program works: The user plays the role of a police officer responding to an agitated person. When they put on the virtual reality headset, they are immersed in a potentially volatile scenario, a tense streetside encounter with someone behaving unpredictably. 

How the officer chooses to interact with the troubled individual can either calm the person down or make them more upset. The subject is controlled by a trainer, who can respond in various ways to the officer’s actions. The user’s goal: defusing the situation so that everybody walks away unharmed. 

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/2022-blog-images/rivasVR.jpgWilliams Rivas, a community activist who helped organize the community conversations that provided Jennings with crucial input from Schenectady residents, said that Schenectady “has shown a willingness to be creative and innovative in its approach to community policing.” 

“Dane and his team were willing to sit down and listen to the community as well as (Police Chief Eric Clifford) and Schenectady Police Department officers,” said Rivas, shown at left operating the program. 

Another key partner was the local non-profit organization The Center for Community Justice. Jason Benitez, from Capital Region Chamber, and Dr. Veneilya Harden, vice chair of the Albany Community Police Review Board, helped moderate the community conversations. 

Jennings said he hopes more departments - in the Capital Region and beyond - will purchase and implement his software. 

“We wouldn’t have gotten here without The Schenectady Foundation’s support,” he said. 

Below is the main menu of the program. 

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/2022-blog-images/VR main menu.jpg

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