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How video simulators are changing use-of-force training

Video simulators can allow agencies to shoot video of hot spots in their jurisdictions in order to replicate conditions officers may actually face


Few forces are impacting law enforcement like video. Policing in the Video Age, P1's yearlong special editorial focus on video in law enforcement, aims to address all facets of the topic with expanded analysis and reporting.

In the third installment of this four-part signature coverage effort, we address training & policy in a recorded world. Click here to learn more about the project.

Law enforcement trainers have been using video for decades. Trainers regularly stand before a room full of recruits or in-service trainees and show footage of officers engaged in deadly confrontations. We have learned many lessons from videos of incidents such as Laurens County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Dinkheller being gunned down by a motorist at a traffic stop and the assassination of two West Memphis (Ark.) police officers by two so-called “Sovereign Citizens.”

Using video in this way is not about “Monday Morning Quarterbacking.” By using videos of these tragedies, trainers aim to help officers be better prepared to face similar threats – to “honor the dead by teaching the living.”

Trainers are also putting mobile phones into the hands of role players in scenario-based training so officers can get used to operating with video cameras focused on their every move. That mobile phone footage is then used during debriefs to help officers reinforce what they’ve learned.

But perhaps the most cutting-edge use of video in law enforcement training is use-of-force simulators. Gone are the days when grainy, two-dimensional videos are the only resource. Today’s video simulators offer HD-quality with multiple possible outcomes built into software depending on what the officer does in a scenario. Top-of-the-line simulators are highly customizable, allowing agencies with the right equipment to shoot video of hot spots in their jurisdictions in order to replicate conditions officers may actually face.

Taking training to the next level with video simulation

In July 2017, the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy installed a VirTra V-300, which utilizes five 10-foot screens in a contiguous wraparound scenario-based video simulator – that’s approximately 300 degrees of video once the trainee is inside the simulator.

“It’s a great tool for us to use to enhance the training we already do because it allows us to practice all of levels of force, from verbal de-escalation to lethal or deadly force,” said Lieutenant Steve Hampton, Director of the Saint Louis Police Academy. “It is great practice for us to replicate real-life scenarios to prepare us to respond when faced with the real situation.”

The agency has trained almost 100 officers in as many as five scenarios each, and aims to have trained all 850 of its sworn officers by September. The department will then have the opportunity to build new scenarios and prepare for the next round of training.

“We really want to get into a partnership with VirTra to film scenarios for us next year that they can also put in their library, but it will also show a lot of the things that we do here in the Saint Louis County area,” Hampton said. “One of the things we like about this system is that we’ll be able to add onto it as the V-Author program allows you to create your own scenarios.”

Hampton and his cadre of trainers can even take existing scenarios – all the out-of-the-box videos that come with the system – and overlay those onto video scenes filmed in the Saint Louis County area. This is because VirTra filmed its actors in the scenarios against a green screen and filmed the locations separately. This basically means that as long as you have reasonably good video cameras, you can take advantage of myriad permutations of any scenario.

Deep tech and top talent behind the scenes

Even the best script in the world cannot save a video featuring people who cannot act. This is one of the reasons live reality-based training can fall flat. If the role players are not believable, trainees “tune out” and may not get much (if anything) out of the training. The same is true of video simulators.

This is why VirTra interviews as many as 10 different actors, and puts them through different situations that will occur in filming – it’s more like a Hollywood casting process than a job interview.

“You want to have it believable when the officer is in training,” said VirTra CEO Bob Ferris. “You want them to suspend disbelief and enter into the training as if the situation was actually happening and learn from the results without anyone getting hurt.”

In addition to the quality of the human aspect of the simulation, the scenarios themselves need to be believable. All of VirTra’s pre-built scenarios are based on real-life incidents.

The V-300 system is capable of simulating hundreds of scenarios that can convey body language and other non-verbal threat cues that are a crucial part of progressive judgmental use-of-force training. Scenarios are built in such a way as to make an officer’s peripheral vision as important in the simulator as it is on the streets, where stuff can come at you from anywhere – the system is quick to remind a trainee of that fact.

Each scenario is professionally produced with content vetted by subject matter experts to test a trainee’s critical thinking skills, weapons skills under pressure and psychological responses to the stresses of life-like situations.

“I truly believe that the more opportunities we have to train with real-life scenarios, whether it’s a video or not, is just going to enhance our service to the community we’re sworn to protect,” said Hampton.

One of the most interesting things about the simulator in use at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy is the sophistication of the software. In order to achieve the level of realism and the multitude of outcomes in any given scenario, each screen is run by its own computer, with a master computer that puts everything together for the system operator.

 “We have one master computer and then we have multiple cluster computers,” said Ferris.  “The operator only deals with the master computer, but the system uses one computer per screen to make sure everything stays in sync, and the interaction is quick.”

“It’s phenomenal what they can do with technology,” Hampton said. “It is also invaluable to be able to watch videos of real-life scenarios as we do not have the time for real actors to role-play with us at the academy. It saves a lot of time, effort and manpower.”

It’s abundantly clear that video simulation will play an increasingly important role in law enforcement training in the future.

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