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UC to study new Google software that trains police to de-escalate situations

University of Cincinnati Police is one of five departments UC researchers will be studying.

Jigsaw, a unit of Google, asked UC to help evaluate the VR technology after researchers showed in 2019 there was a direct impact from de-escalation training in the field, including a reduction in the use of force.

The University of Cincinnati is one of a handful of universities and private companies selected to evaluate new virtual reality software designed to de-escalate police interactions and prevent injury to officers, citizens and bystanders.

The technology was designed by Jigsaw, a unit of Google.

Jigsaw approached UC Professor Robin Engel who directs the Center for Police Research and Policy after her team demonstrated in 2019 a direct impact between de-escalation training and officer behavior in the field. She says it also showed a significant reduction in the use of force.

Engle says most police training is not tested and it’s unclear if it works.

“The first thing that’s really great about this training tool, is that the developers, the technologists, want to know if it works and what we can do to improve it,” Engel says. “So I think everyone’s goal here is to reduce the likelihood of injury to an officer or citizen or bystanders, during a police-citizen encounter.”

The platform is called Trainer, and characters respond to questions and commands in real time depending on what the officer does.

A demonstration to reporters Monday showed two scenarios: one was for domestic violence, the other was a traffic stop. In that one, a Black teen was pulled over for running a stop sign. While the officer asked for registration, a neighbor demanded to know why the teen had been stopped. The officer ignored the neighbor and eventually let the teen go and told him to be more careful.

Other scenarios include a suspicious person, and a mental health run.

UC will evaluate the technology in five departments beginning in January:

University of Cincinnati
Boulder, CO
Tulsa, OK

According to Engel, the participating officers will train on the VR headsets and report back to researchers if they have any changes in their self confidence. Down the road, they will be tested for actual changes in behavior.

“Within the first month or two we’ll know specifics about the actual ways that others interact on that VR platform, whether or not it’s realistic enough if we need to make changes to the technology," she says.

Engel stresses researchers will be looking at a limited number of officers so as to not take too many off the streets.

She points out the hardware and software are affordable for even small and medium departments, costing under $1,000.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.