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How simulators will transform police use of force training in 2018

As use of force simulator tech continues to become further validated with science-based research, there will be even more sophisticated learning opportunities for LE


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By Lon Bartel

Over the course of 2017, police training around use of force was a national issue, as pressure from relentless media coverage and activist groups kept a number of unfortunate officer-involved incidents in the public eye.

As we enter 2018, it’s clear that this attention will not wane, and police use of force training is sure to remain top of mind for many citizens.

Simulators combine aspects of range training and classroom learning to allow officers to become more proficient in these areas. (Photo/Courtesy)
Simulators combine aspects of range training and classroom learning to allow officers to become more proficient in these areas. (Photo/Courtesy)

At the same time, government administrators are struggling to fund law enforcement training, and police overtime and staffing issues place additional pressure on training time and other resources needed to conduct adequate police training.

Despite these challenges law enforcement agencies around the country will need to be more diligent with training to help prepare their officers to face this increased scrutiny, along with the growing variety of threats they face on the streets.

We spoke with several training academics and experts to get their take on what they see as emerging trends in police use of force training. Here are three areas where they expect training to evolve in 2018:

1. Increased efficiencies in police training

Despite the booming economy, law enforcement budgets are not growing, and departments have the dilemma of trying to increase funding for training in the face of new and emerging 21st century threats that include more active shooter incidents, possible terrorist attacks and continuing police recruitment issues.

For many departments, firearms training is often only done on the range in a static environment that doesn’t adequately prepare police officers for what they will face in the field.

Rather than spending additional time on the range, in classrooms or even in online classes, departments will use blended learning programs like those offered by advanced use of force simulators, which offer efficiencies in training and allow agencies to extract more from a training session without requiring additional manpower.

Simulated scenarios provide a unique mix of hands-on training that can help officers learn how to stay focused and respond appropriately in high-stress situations in ways that can’t be replicated with static forms of training.

While simulators have been regularly used in military and airline pilot training for decades, they’re underutilized in law enforcement training, which is still stuck in “arcade-style training,” says Dr. Paul O’Connell, a policing consultant and professor of criminal justice at Iona College.

Simulators require less time to set up and run than a range session, and there are additional savings found in the reduced costs for ammunition and targets, along with time savings from eliminating gun reloading and target resetting. This allows trainers to focus more on the actual training itself.

Agencies such as the Omaha Police Department are already using its simulator to increase training efficiencies.

Unlike other forms of simulated use of force training that can require the entire training staff’s participation, Omaha states that a session in its simulator requires only one or two trainers, freeing up training staff and reducing the use of other department resources.  

The department also made things easier by certifying other instructors (use of force, firearms and TASER instructors) to run training sessions on its simulator. This allowed supervisors to schedule and train more officers during their shifts, thus reducing the use of overtime or personal time to complete required training. Omaha PD said that the department was able to rotate 22 officers in and out of training on an overnight shift with none of the downtime associated with range training.

2. A drive toward data-driven training

Data-driven training will be the biggest area of advancement in police training in 2018.

Agencies are already using data for predictive analytics and developing algorithms in crime prevention. There is a huge opportunity for law enforcement to bring this same approach to how they train their officers in the use of force with peer-reviewed science on effective police training methods in advanced simulators.

“There are better ways to train,” says David Blake, a prominent instructor and consultant in human performance and the use of force. “The behavioral style of learning based on a stimulus-response can only take law enforcement so far. We need to incorporate decision-based training to teach officers cognitive-psychomotor skills.”

Police officers need more hands-on training that simulates what they actually encounter on a daily basis to allow them to:

  • Better recognize threats;
  • Handle stress;
  • De-escalate;
  • If necessary, use lethal force in a manner that complies with a department’s use of force guidelines.

Simulators combine aspects of range training and classroom learning to allow officers to become more proficient in these areas.

Dr. Joel Suss, an assistant professor of psychology at Wichita State University, agrees, and says the move to incorporate more science and data analysis into training will mirror how professional athletes have trained since the 1970s.

Elite athletes engage in focused training using the concept of “temporal occlusion,” which essentially involves blocking the vision of the outcome of a movement at a point before a ball’s release or flight. Baseball players are taught pitch recognition by focusing on a pitcher’s release point, and soccer goalies learn how to block penalty kicks by analyzing the shooter’s hip angle and foot placement prior to the kick.

Training in advanced simulators using concepts like temporal occlusion allows trainers to help officers see and understand the environmental queues that can reliably predict what a subject will likely do in a given scenario, says Suss.

Simulators also allow for manipulation of the environment to replicate settings that can be problematic for effective decision-making, such as low light situations or ambient noise. Variables such as these contribute to the ambiguity of making split-second decisions in stressful situations, and advanced simulators permit trainers to inject new information or stimulus into a situation that influences a response to another stimulus.

This “psychological priming” can enable law enforcement to better understand and train their officers to know how to respond in situations that could require the use of force.

Suss says certain officers may be better able to react and respond in high-stress situations. Simulated scenarios allow researchers and trainers to determine whether there are associated variables that can help predict what those factors are. This is critical to reinforcing best practices and teaching skills that may be innate to an undercover officer with 20 years of experience but completely foreign to a new recruit with 20 hours of firearms range training.

Use of force simulators and the ability to input custom video background and multiple variables make such learning even easier. Trainers can conduct these ‘experiments’ in controlled environments and provide richer learning opportunities by mixing veteran officers into cadet training sessions. These factors then become the teachable moments for trainers that help trainees make better decisions on when to use lethal force or whether to continue to engage a subject with verbal commands.

Incorporating more data and academic learning into police training will allow law enforcement officers to get to the “how” and “why” of accurately predicting how scenarios will unfold.

“If we can identify which officer is better at predicting what will happen earlier than others, we can learn what the most important cognitive factors to focus on in training,” says Suss.

Simulation technology allows things like eye tracking and measuring reaction times to become a routine part of training. Even more nuanced concepts such as spatial occlusion can be brought to bear, helping law enforcement analyze whether focusing on individual body parts provides more insight into determining whether or not a subject presents an imminent threat.

3. Better training for trainers

As decision-based methodology becomes more widely accepted in use of force training, there will be an increased emphasis on “training the trainers” to include more mental and psychological components in training curriculums.

Simulated scenarios provide training on how to verbally engage subjects with techniques and slow-down situations so that officers have more time to consider their options while mentally assessing the totality of the interaction. This helps trainers ensure that officers can articulate why they chose to take a certain action or use a particular verbal command in a given situation.

Questions like these are already part of a typical debriefing that follows a simulator session, but moving forward there will be more in-scenario coaching that focuses on the mental decision-making process an officer or trainee is using, what department policy says about that decision and what, if any, other options exist in that situation.

Blake says that officers “need to know what they are looking at in a given situation and have the ability to articulate not only what their different force options are, but what they are allowed to do according to department policy and existing case law.”

The incorporation of better data and academic learning into training will create better training for trainers and more opportunities for learning for officers and cadets. Identifying the underlying expertise involved in determining threats will allow trainers to refine training curriculums to help new recruits better focus on these tactics and techniques.

2018 will no doubt bring new challenges to police training. As use of force simulator technology continues to advance and become further validated with science-based research, there will be even more sophisticated learning opportunities for law enforcement to ensure they receive the best training possible.


About the experts
Dr. Paul O’Connell is a leading expert on the development and application of performance-based management systems in public agencies. He has been a full-time member of the Criminal Justice faculty at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York since 1994.

Dr. Joel Suss is an assistant professor of psychology at Wichita State University whose research interests focus on understanding and improving perceptual-cognitive performance in complex and challenging operational settings such as law enforcement, security, military command and control, aviation and emergency medicine.

David Blake is a retired California Peace Officer and certified CA-POST instructor in DT, Firearms, Force Options Simulator and Reality Based Training. He is a certified Force Science Analyst and teaches the CA-POST certified courses entitled Force Encounters Analysis and Human Factors: Threat & Error Management for the California Training Institute. He also currently facilitates the CA-POST Force Options Simulator training to tenured officers from multiple jurisdictions, and is an expert witness and consultant in human performance and use of force.

About the author
Lon Bartel is a use-of-force expert for VirTra, Inc., and works closely with law enforcement agencies on use-of-force scenario training. He previously spent 20 years in law enforcement, including 17 years as a certified law enforcement trainer.

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