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NYPD virtual-reality program to aid children with tough situations

The program puts groups of teens through the curriculum so they can gain emotional intelligence and de-escalate situations.

An NYPD officer models virtual-reality goggles used in

An NYPD officer models virtual-reality goggles used in the program, which is aimed at placing teenagers in simulated situations so they can learn de-escalation techniques. Photo Credit: Newsday/Anthony M. DeStefano

The NYPD is using virtual reality to help teenagers deal with real life on the street.

Aided by $500,000 from the nonprofit New York City Police Foundation, city cops are putting youngsters through computer simulations — complete with virtual-reality goggles and using real-life scenarios — to help them de-escalate gang confrontations.

Known as “Options,” the program puts groups of 10 to 15 teens that the police invite in through a three-day curriculum so they can gain emotional intelligence to de-escalate situations when they are confronted by gang members in their neighborhoods.

According to NYPD Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison, the program was spawned from an earlier effort where cops allowed teens to come in and get their complaints about police “off their chest.”  

From that beginning, the department last year began using virtual-reality technology that placed the teenagers in computer-generated scenarios where they are part of scene in which gang members confront them in an effort to entice them to join a street crew. In the scenes, the real-life participants are asked either accept, refuse or come up with an excuse for not joining the gang.

“All the scenarios you see, the kids designed the scenarios themselves,” said Det. Jason Anazagasty, 33, during a demonstration for reporters of the pilot system Tuesday at police headquarters in Manhattan.

"They came up to us and sat down and said, ‘Listen, this is what we see all the time in our neighborhood in Brownsville in Brooklyn and East New York,’” Anazagasty said about the scripting of the computer-generated scenes.

During the demonstration, Hassan Dwight, 18, of Brownsville, donned a virtual-reality headset that placed him in an inner-city schoolyard setting where two computer-generated gang members — a man and a woman — tried to coerce a virtual “friend” of Dwight to join a gang. 

The computer-generated gang members are rebuffed in the video and walk away.  Dwight told reporters that as the scene unraveled he felt apprehensive — even though it was computer generated.

The idea, said Anazagasty, who is a neighborhood coordination officer in Brooklyn, is to have teenagers see how confrontations can be de-escalated. Another scenario deals with a “knockout” game, where innocent people are struck to the ground, he added.

“We want to make sure they make the mistakes in the virtual world and not in the real world; that is the biggest take-away from it,” Anazagasty said. “We have to make sure these kids in the urban areas have options, that we can give them the resources they need.”

One teenager reported that he used de-escalation methods depicted to get out of a real-life gang confrontation, Anazagasty said.

For now, the selected outcomes on the videos are limited to the three basic outcomes. But the NYPD is currently working with the program developer, Street Smarts, to select more varied, unexpected scenarios.

“In some situations, you won’t know the outcomes,” Anazagasty said. “We don’t want you to choose it, we are going to choose it for you, for you to understand how to get out of that situation.”

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