SCHENECTADY — By his own admission, Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford isn’t exactly a video game aficionado.
The last game he played? One of Nintendo’s “Zelda” games years ago with his now-grown kids.
However, in the ongoing process of refining training procedures for his officers to interact with the public, Clifford is more than happy to embrace emerging technologies.
So, Tuesday morning at Urban Co-Works, Clifford pulled on a virtual reality headset and stepped into a simulation of a traffic stop where Clifford’s pixelated partner pulled a gun on a subject and worked through a series of options to de-escalate the situation.
Clifford and the SPD are partnering with Catapult Games, a Schenectady-based video game development company, as Catapult refines a virtual reality police de-escalation training simulator that the company is hoping to make available to police departments across the nation.
“For too long, police training has had little to no focus on de-escalation,” Catapult Games CEO and co-founder Dane Jennings said. “With our VR de-escalation training, we believe that police officers will be better prepared to resolve conflicts without the use of force. Sometimes, it’s necessary to use force, but it should always be the last resort.
“Our plan is to pilot this program with Schenectady, and then share it with the rest of the country.”
Jennings, who founded Catapult Games in 2017 along with Chris Caulfield, said the difference between Catapult’s product and many other police training simulators is its adaptability.
— Erica Miller (@EricaPhotog) February 9, 2021
Catapult’s simulator is unique in its focus on teaching de-escalation techniques, Jennings said. Developers have worked with local experts in the mental health and social justice fields to help craft realistic scenarios in a “community-driven” process, and each scenario is extremely adaptive as every decision made by a participant can either escalate or de-escalate a situation and change how the simulation plays out.
“This technology,” Jennings said, “has the power to transform lives and organizations.”
While the scenario Clifford walked through Tuesday morning was simply part of Catapult’s “proof of concept” demo, a wide range of scenarios will be available by the time the application is launched.
Lead developer Gabriel Langlois said the team at Catapult Games went through publicly available police camera footage of incidents that were handled improperly — like the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May that sparked waves of protests across the country — and situations that were de-escalated properly.
Langlois said that Clifford has also offered to provide real-life scenarios from the SPD, allowing Catapult to, “use that source material to inform the scenarios we’re creating in order to produce something that’s not only realistic, but that’s actually happened.”
.@CatapultGamesVR, with @schdypolice and Center for Community Justice, announce their partnership to developing a virtual reality educational training software for #SPD to provide tactics aimed to de-escalate situations encountered on the roads in #Schenectady pic.twitter.com/gPfm3KFMbS
— Erica Miller (@EricaPhotog) February 9, 2021
Clifford said the department had discussed providing body camera footage to Catapult Games to help create training scenarios, though providing that footage will likely be a lengthy process.
“We’ll go through scenarios and maybe ask them to develop them based on real-life situations, to say, ‘What would you have done?’” he said.
“We have a lot of discussions to go through before that can become a reality,” he added. “We have to probably bring in our district attorney to make sure a case is not in trial or has potential for an appeal, but once we would get the OK and do the proper redactions, we may turn that over for scenario-based implementation — especially for the ones we feel would be good for everyone to train on.”
Among the scenarios Clifford said could be included was the incident from last July where video showed a city police officer kneeling on a man’s neck while being taken into custody, which sparked community outrage and an investigation.
“That would certainly be something that we would look at,” Clifford said. “Either that incident, or something similar.”
The partnership drew praise from multiple leaders of local organizations dedicated to social justice.
“The city of Schenectady and the police department have shown in the past few months that it has a commitment to change and innovation,” said William Rivas, executive director of COCOA House and founder of Save Our Streets. “I’m really excited to see the outcome of this project and how the community can interact.”
“We have all the right people in this community to be able to take this on,” said Cheryl Vallee, executive director of the Center for Community Justice. “Certainly, at the core of law enforcement is a positive relationship with the community.”
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy also expressed excitement about the partnership.
“It’s exciting to be able to work with so many emerging technologies,” McCarthy said, “so that we’re better able to train, accept and prepare our police officers to be able to deal with situations every day.”
The project is currently self-funded, and Jennings said the plan is for the company to have a shippable version of the simulator ready to launch within six months.
While Clifford might not be a gamer, he said that for many of his younger officers that grew up on video games, Catapult’s simulator could be an ideal tool to supplement the department’s other forms of de-escalation training.
“The last game I played was ‘Zelda,’” Clifford said, “but, a lot of my younger officers, this is right up their alley. This probably resonates with them a lot more than with me.”