Virtual training to help PO police improve

A cutting-edge training program where Port Orchard police slip on high-tech video headgear to immerse themselves in a virtual world is about to start.

Officers will learn how to react when someone suddenly pulls out a gun or when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. Sgt. Andy Brandon, the department’s training supervisor, said the innovative program will supplement conventional in-person training.

Beginning in March, the virtual reality training will put officers in real-life video scenarios. Situations include dealing with a suicidal person, traffic stops, responding to volatile domestic violence calls and encounters that involve the use of a taser or firearm, Brandon said. Officers can safely learn, even by making mistakes. The scenarios are designed to encourage critical thinking and methods to de-escalate volatile situations, Brandon said.

A growing number of police departments have begun using virtual reality training used in other professions. For example, surgeons can practice specialized surgeries long before a patient is on the operating table; pilots can fly and land new planes before stepping into the cockpit; and the U.S. Army has had virtual versions of North Korea to practice military scenarios.

For police, training involves an officer with a headset that provides a 360-degree view of a situation. Some scenarios feature actors while others include computer-generated avatars. Headphones allow trainees to hear others talking, complete with background noises — like a person walking up behind them or someone in a passing car yelling out, “Screw the pigs!”

During an exercise, a trainee is given a series of choices. Based on decisions made by an officer, the scenario can unfold in a variety of ways. Some 3-D sessions are recorded so the trainer can later sit down with the participant and analyze the decision-making.

Firearms training

In use-of-force exercises, officers are equipped with replicas of guns and tasers. The devices can be used in situations calling for rapid-fire decisions. For example, in one scenario an officer is confronted by someone walking toward them, with that person sometimes holding a bottle, knife, gun — or nothing at all. The trainer has to decide whether to use oral commands, a taser or a gun, or a combination, Brandon said.

In another example an officer is in a parking lot and sees one person on top of another, assaulting him. The one underneath is screaming for help. “You have to decide what tool to use — do you use your taser on the person assaulting the person to incapacitate him? Then, [the scenario] switches and the guy being assaulted pulls out a firearm. It’s an evolving event,” Brandon said.

Mental health

The training system made by Axon, which also supplied Port Orchard’s police body cams – also has mental illness scenarios. In one, the trainee steps into the shoes of a person having a schizophrenic episode at a crowded bus stop. “It puts you in the place of the person having a mental health crisis. You hear the voices in the person’s head and their suicidal thoughts. You also see how the person perceives others are looking at him,” Brandon said.

​Then the trainee switches to being the officer who is contacting the individual. The trainee is asked a series of questions, such as whether he or she wants to observe the person or to intervene. The officer is given a variety of ways to approach that person, ranging from showing compassion to instructing the subject to do something. Making wrong choices can lead the individual to panic. At that point, the program restarts and allows the officer to make different decisions.

To diffuse a possibly combative confrontation, the training shows ways for an officer to interact with people. “There could be a time where not confronting someone … will help calm them down. Then with some people, a show of authority does help. This guides you down the path of what is the best interaction to do in different kinds of scenarios,” Brandon said.

Comparing training

In-person training involves live-action drills that can include moving cars and actors shooting at the trainees with simunitions, or sophisticated paintball bullets. The sessions are held at locations such as abandoned homes, the police range or on military bases.

The cost of virtual training is less than traditional training. Brandon said in-person sessions can involve up to six staff to serve as actors and to supervise, while virtual training can take place in an office and include only a trainee and supervisor. ​There is no cost to shoot a taser or firearm in the virtual world compared with shelling out nearly a $1 a round to shoot a paintball from a handgun and $30 to fire a taser cartridge.

Port Orchard police plan to hold virtual training once a month and continue in-person trainings every few months, Brandon said.

He said in-person training is still the best, but virtual is a great way to supplement it because situations can be safely repeated. It “does give people the ability to get additional reps in scenarios that they may not be able to get because we don’t always have the ability to do in-person training.”