Law enforcement can never train too much, and if the training happens to be fun then that’s all the better.
The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office recently dropped $150,000 on the highest-tech video game system you’ve even seen, and is using it to help officers improve their judgement when faced with tough calls on whether to use force or try to deescalate instead. Law enforcement agencies in 44 other states use the same system to drop trainees into about a million different virtual reality scenarios, from rural domestic violence calls to school shootings to drunken and disorderly behavior at a gentleman’s club.
The Apex Officer Virtual Reality Police Training Simulator aims to help law enforcement make better decisions in high-pressure situations, so if you’re wanting to rent it out for your son’s birthday party then you’re missing the point, even though that would be awesome. The system’s nearly unlimited mix-and-match training scenarios — different locations, types of calls, perpetrators and victims — is being used to help deputies prepare to make the hard calls in confusing and potentially dangerous settings. “And we can also work with different variables that we’re dealing with, from someone who may be suffering dementia, or mental illness, or a variety of things that we can utilize in this system to put the deputy going through the training into that situation,” Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins said.
The department has two of the simulators, one for deputies and another for detention center guards. It takes two: a trainee geared up with headset, VR backpack and a weapon (pistol, pepper spray, a baton or a rifle), plus a situation DJ who runs the computer program via laptop, mixing up crimes, buildings and other variables as the training unfolds.
Lt. Chris Ameling is one of the handful of Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office employees trained to run the Apex VR system. He flips expertly through screens that allow him to change it up so each training run is different. Dropdown menus let him customize the people the trainee will be dealing with, adding mental illness, drugs, weapons and other wildcards to the mix. Ameling then serves as the dispatcher, his voice patched through to the trainee’s headset as the scenario unfolds.
While we know law enforcement training is serious business and crime isn’t supposed to be entertaining, anyone who’s ever taken the controls on Grand Theft Auto knows popping into an alternative universe where you might get to shoot people is a good time. It certainly was for the media types who lined up Tuesday for their turn at the headset. A blogger got a lesson in quick decision-making when he shot an innocent person who was just reaching for his cellphone. A TV news camerawoman suffered three stab wounds on a domestic violence call before shooting the abusive husband to death. Tote-bagging NPR correspondents aren’t usually known for their burly bloodlust, but KUAR Morning Edition host Daniel Breen admitted he did so well on his simulation that he’s contemplating a career swap into law enforcement.
Members of the department’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee, which includes presidents from all of the Neighborhood Crime Watch groups in the county, have gotten to try out the new simulator. Young people in the department’s Jr. Deputy Summer Camp will get a turn later this week.
So far about 200 law enforcement officers from the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department and the Pulaski County Detention Center have taken turns on the new VR training system. The department requires 48 hours of annual training, up from 16 hours under the previous sheriff, Higgins said. The VR training doesn’t replace real-life courses on safe driving, hours at the shooting range or SWAT drills. But it will help train more officers more quickly, and Higgins said ultimately he thinks it will save money because the department won’t need to rent places or cover transportation costs for off-site training. “This is an added tool that we can utilize, and utilize in the space we have and put more people through it.” Other law enforcement agencies can use the equipment, too, he said.