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4 ways simulation can boost your agency’s training efforts

Use virtual reality for stress inoculation, officer selection and evaluation, community outreach and more


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Sponsored by VirTra

By Rachel Zoch for PoliceOne BrandFocus

Ongoing training is critical for every law enforcement agency to help keep officers sharp in the field and up to date on the latest laws and policies. As important as daily roll call briefings are in communicating this information, it’s even more important to provide realistic, stress-inducing experiences to help officers develop muscle memory and practice real-time decision-making for the rapidly unfolding, high-pressure situations they face every day.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office provides a training center for law enforcement throughout the state. Here, Special Agent Chris Walden hones his marksmanship skills on their VirTra simulated long gun range. (image/Utah AG Training Center)
The Utah Attorney General’s Office provides a training center for law enforcement throughout the state. Here, Special Agent Chris Walden hones his marksmanship skills on their VirTra simulated long gun range. (image/Utah AG Training Center)

This is where virtual reality simulation training comes in – but a simulator can provide more than training. PoliceOne spoke with Ken Wallentine, chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General, as well as Will Fowlke, a 25-year law enforcement veteran and training specialist with the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

They discussed the innovative ways the Utah AG’s training center uses a VirTra simulator to provide training, evaluation and community outreach for a host of local, state and federal agencies.

1. CUSTOMIZED OFFICER TRAINING  

The mission of the training center is to work with all sizes of law enforcement agencies, from local to federal, each with its own training objectives and mandates. The center has served more than 90 groups and counting. Versatility is one of the key benefits of the VirTra platform, says Fowlke.

“Our programs have to be versatile to deal with that broad range of training objectives and education objectives,” he said.

Wallentine, who was instrumental in developing the AG’s simulation training program before becoming the West Jordan PD chief in October 2018, says the simulator provides an excellent representation of real-world conditions and situations. West Jordan has sent its officers through a full regimen of training at the center over the last couple of years, including hundreds of hours in the simulator.

“It is the closest thing to training in real life and force-on-force training that we could not really accomplish without phenomenal expense. Frankly, the facilities just aren’t available,” Wallentine said. “The virtuosity of the reality, the closest to what officers are doing on the street, in fact, and the fact that they are training at the speed of life on the street, is important.”

The ability to develop specific scenarios and courses tailored to local needs and goals is another key benefit, he adds, giving the example of using a course from the VirTra library to highlight a particular issue, such as interacting with a hearing-impaired person, and then follow up with department-specific information.

“The officer has to demonstrate the skill of dealing with the hearing-impaired person, then we can back that up with our own training,” said Wallentine. “We can debrief the scenario from their performance perspective and also add our policy, the legal requirements and what we expect to reinforce that in real life.”

He says the interactive scenarios are especially helpful when it comes to policy topics that might make for a dull briefing but are nonetheless critical for success on the street.

“We’re able to take a subject that otherwise might be considered dry and is so very critical to risk management and success on the street for a police officer, and we’re able to deliver that training in a way that’s enjoyable, it’s kinesthetic,” said Wallentine. “There are so many adult learning principles at play that just reinforce the concepts that we’re trying to train.”

2. OFFICER SELECTION AND EVALUATION 

Training is only one way to use the simulator, however. Every police department in the country struggles to find suitable applicants and discern whether they have the judgment and skills to make it in the field.

Wallentine says the simulator is a great tool for finding out how candidates will react in high-stress situations. He and Fowlke both recommend using the simulator to evaluate recruits and assess an officer’s fitness for duty when needed.

“We’ll take our candidates over to the virtual reality center and put them in situations where they’ve got to use force and make decisions in a real-time situation,” said Wallentine. “We’re looking for people who can make decisions quickly under stress and don’t just freeze up. We’ve got real-time, real-life performance that we can tie their answer to. That’s been very valuable.”

The simulator can also provide a key tool when assessing an officer’s fitness for duty, because the virtual reality system can show both the evaluator and the officer his or her performance and provide concrete feedback based on that person’s reaction to real-time stimuli than abstract, psychological testing.

Wallentine recalls working with a neurologist to evaluate one officer who suffered a traumatic brain injury. The doctor joined the chief and the officer at the virtual reality center to observe the officer’s performance and monitor her brain function under intense stress before clearing her to return to work based on the results.

“As a chief, my role is to make sure that my community is safe, and I do that by making sure that first, I hire the best people I can, and the virtual reality simulator helps me do that. Secondly, I put the officers out on the street as well-equipped as they can be to deal with the tasks that they’re going to face, and the virtual reality simulator helps me do that,” said Wallentine. “Then, in those rare cases where I’ve got a question about someone, it helps me sit back and take a look at that person’s ability.”

3. COMMUNITY OUTREACH  

A third possibility is community outreach. In addition to officers and law enforcement agencies, the Utah AG’s training center also welcomes community leaders and groups to foster a better understanding of what it’s like to stand in the shoes of an officer and make split-second decisions under pressure.

Wallentine has invited community civil rights leaders to spend time with his team at the VirTra simulator and to have a discussion of why police officers use force and helping them experience situations where the force decisions are made under incredible pressure to better understand the Supreme Court’s term: “Tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.”

That experience has opened a very productive dialogue, he says.

“It provided the most magnificent platform for a discussion of how we train, and how our police department and our police community do show reverence for life,” said Wallentine. “We have made tremendous deposits in the bank of public opinion and transparency in a way that I don’t think we could’ve accomplished otherwise.”

Fowlke adds that the training center extended an open invitation to members of the media to help them understand that decisions are often made between heartbeats for officers, within split seconds.

“I sometimes feel that we are just scratching the surface of the different uses to help law enforcement and the larger community understand the criminal justice system and criminality,” he said. “They cannot judge an officer’s performance based on 20/20 hindsight. It has to be, ‘What would a reasonable officer on the scene do?’ That’s been very effective.”

4. EDUCATING SCHOOL LEADERS 

The principal and vice principals from Syracuse High School, about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City, experienced firsthand, through virtual reality simulation, the “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” environment of an active shooter on a school campus. (image/Utah AG Training Center)
The principal and vice principals from Syracuse High School, about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City, experienced firsthand, through virtual reality simulation, the “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” environment of an active shooter on a school campus. (image/Utah AG Training Center)

Community outreach is a key potential use for the simulator, and this includes helping educators understand how law enforcement approaches campus safety. Fowlke and Wallentine recommend that school resource officers bring school principals and other educators to the virtual reality training center to experience active shooter scenarios for a better understanding of the officer’s perspective and what must be done to make the campus more secure.

“My goal is to have them walk out of that experience committed to working with their resource officers and their local police departments in developing and testing their active shooter policies and procedures,” said Fowlke. “We try to form a partnership between them. So far, it’s been very successful.”

THE BEST DEFENSE  

Wallentine is also an attorney, and he has defended many police officers in use of force cases. He says the intensity and realism of the simulation training is “a marvelous tool” that provides a key legal benefit.

“This is one of the most powerful tools to defend the overall integrity of your training program,” he said. “We’ve seen courts talk about training being inadequate when it doesn’t include strong components of decision-making, when the officer doesn’t have to make a decision in a rapid situation. The more realistic the training, the more defensible the training is against a claim that the department, the agency, has failed to train the officer.”

OTHER POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS

Simulation training really is limited only by the creativity of the people using the system, say Fowlke and Wallentine. The Utah AG training center is working on new programs, including teaching officers to lower their heart rate during critical incidents by using cardiac monitors and biofeedback techniques.

Wallentine is particularly excited about a tactical medicine program to help officers refresh skills they may use rarely but still need to keep razor-sharp.

“It’s very typical for a tactical team to go to a parking lot and rehearse,” he said. “This system allows us to rehearse with a breach with the sound, with the fury, with the gunfire – and planning for the contingency that one of my officers gets hit and needs to be immediately removed and have a tourniquet applied. To me, it’s a lifesaver.”

The VirTra software gives agencies the ability to film on their location and to create their own branching scenarios, or the company will work in partnership with the agency to create scenarios to be added to the main library for all VirTra users.

“As a chief of police, in my 37 years of policing, virtual reality and this particular system, because it’s so faithful and so versatile, is probably the biggest, high-tech advance that we’ve seen in preparing officers to be on the street,” said Wallentine.

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