After calls for police accountability following the killing of Mike Brown in 2014, Axon raked in billions selling body cameras and stun guns to police. Now, the company has announced its latest sales pitch: a virtual reality training program for police that uses $1,300 VR headsets to train officers with various simulations of real-life encounters.
While strapped into the HTC VIVE Focus 3 headset, police officers “actually walk and talk through the scenarios as they would in real life, with immediate feedback from trainers and supervisors,” Axon told Motherboard. “Community Engagement VR Training launched in 2018 and is now used by more than one thousand police agencies in the U.S. and Canada,” according to a company press release. Other companies, like SURVIVR and Apex Officer, are swarming into what Axon estimates is a 2 billion dollar addressable market.
The new training program is compatible with wireless VR headsets, and the company's previously released training modules include “Schizophrenia, Autism, Suicidal Ideation, Hard of Hearing, Alzheimer's/ Dementia, Veteran Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, Peer Intervention and Domestic Violence. New content is released each month.”
After the Ferguson uprising in 2014, politicians and police touted Axon’s body cameras as tools that would bring transparency and accountability to policing. But those promises have failed to reduce police killings—the number of people killed by officers in the US each year has remained more or less the same since 2015, and a disproportionate number of those killed are Black and Hispanic.
Now, demand for VR-assisted police training is “unprecedented” following the police murder of George Floyd last May, Axon’s Chief Financial Officer Jawad Ahsan told investors. Police departments, he said, are contacting them first about the technology.
The Phoenix Police Department (PPD) will be the first to train with Axon’s new simulator. In December 2019, PPD purchased 200 Oculus headsets to train with Axon’s “community engagement” training scenarios, which walk officers through situations from the perspective of the officer and a person during a mental health crisis. One training features a distressed autistic child who left a store without paying for a toy robot; the officer must select between the options “talk to partner” and “surround the subject.”
There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical that additional or “better” police training will stop police from terrorizing marginalized communities. "You can't fix systemic racism in policing by layering technology on top of discriminatory systems," Evan Greer, director of the tech-focused activist group Fight for the Future, told Motherboard. “No amount of additional training, whether it's in VR or not, will change the fact that policing in the United States exists primarily to uphold existing oppressive power structures.”
In response to Motherboard’s request for supportive data, Axon did not provide any evidence that ties VR training to better policing outcomes. Instead, the company claimed that virtual reality produces better knowledge retention rates than traditional training, citing a 2015 Fortune article about the use of VR training in hospitals. (The article does not cite any studies that support those claims.)
The push for VR technology comes after repeated calls for better training from police reform advocates. The Obama Administration poured money into officer training after a series of high profile police killings of Black men. In 2015, the Minneapolis Police Department implemented implicit bias, de-escalation, and crisis intervention training. It didn’t work. During the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, a witness testified that the former officer had received de-escalation training.
This is because the nature of policing is inherently violent toward historically oppressed communities, some experts say. “Crime has been narrowly defined within the poorest communities of color in the United States,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School recently told NBC. “The function of police, then, is to control poor populations of color with either the threat or use of violence with impunity. No amount of training will yield different results as long as that’s what policing was built to do.”
In response, activists and advocates are pushing for less police involvement in people’s lives. In Eugene, OR, Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets (CAHOOTS), a mobile crisis intervention team of care workers, responds to mental health and other “non-criminal” crises without the presence of police. CAHOOTS is working with a number of other cities to implement similar programs. Following in their footsteps, New York and several other cities are now testing crisis response teams that intervene in mental health situations with trained professionals instead of police.