Simulation Technology Trains Police Officers To Face Real Life Situations
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The increased scrutiny that police are facing over the use of force also means scrutiny of their training programs. Across the country, police departments are trying to improve the way police are trained. From member station KJZZ, Jimmy Jenkins reports on new simulation technology that prepares officers for real-life situation.
JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: At the Henderson Police Department just outside Las Vegas, police trainer Danny King leads officers through a training mission.
DANNY KING: Henderson Police. Hey, Buddy; let's talk. Just relax. Relax.
JENKINS: King and his trainees are trying to talk an armed suspect out of his house while his agitated dog barks in the background. But they haven't left the police station. They're using a new immersive simulator. It's a far cry from old instructional videos like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The shotgun doesn't have to be aimed carefully. When there's no time to aim, you can whirl, fire and blow the guy away.
JENKINS: Instead, the Henderson Police Department trains on a $275,000 simulator produced by a company called VirTra that's based in Tempe, Ariz. I went to the VirTra headquarters to experience the simulator for myself. I'm standing on a rumbling platform surrounded by five projection screens providing 300 degrees of video and speakers that produce immersive, high-fidelity sound effects. It looks like the most advanced first-person shooter videogame I've ever seen. But this is no game. I'm armed with a real Glock .22 that's modified to simulate actual recoil, and I'm wearing what VirTra calls a threat fire device - basically a Taser that will shock me if I'm shot in the simulation.
KING: King 23 to 97.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Copy.
KING: We're making entry into the high school.
JENKINS: As I move through an active shooter scenario in a high school, frightened teenagers run all around me while while multiple gunmen appear seemingly out of nowhere. I'm forced to distinguish between threats and hostages in split seconds. It's messy and chaotic.
KING: Show me your hands. Show me your hands.
JENKINS: My heart rate's elevated, and I believe I was shot.
KING: The officers dread it. They don't like it, but it tells them, hey, there's consequences to you not doing something that you should.
JENKINS: Police trainer Danny King says the interactive nature of the VirTra simulator, especially that threat fire Taser, is very effective on rookies and veterans alike, allowing them to experience intense emotions for the first time in the trainer instead of the field.
KING: And before officers get to that point, we want them to be under stress. We want them to feel what feels like gas in their veins.
JENKINS: The power of the simulator lies in its ability to affect the body and the mind. Beau Cronin is a neuroscientist researching the effects of virtual reality on the brain. He says these kinds of simulations affect the way we think much in the same way as actual events.
BEAU CRONIN: Multi-sensory experiences are far, far more powerful than, for example, purely visual ones.
JENKINS: New connections are made between neurons in the brain as if the simulation actually happened, something call episodic memory.
CRONIN: But the interesting thing about simulations is that they also have a lot to do with our perceptual memory.
JENKINS: So even if young recruits have never been in a deadly force situation before, if they experience one in a simulation, the brain will remember it. But Cronin warns that these simulations could desensitize police officers from the powerful rush of using deadly force in the field.
CRONIN: The same technology could be used to make it easier, in some ways, for people to commit those acts without having the same kinds of emotional repercussions.
JENKINS: But using deadly force isn't the only method officers learn. Brain Pollard has 22 years of experience on the Henderson Police Force. He likes the simulator because it helps him think through a range of responses.
BRAIN POLLARD: Everybody always feels like the emphasis is on the firearm, but you have a full cadre of equipment on your belt. So you can use less-lethal options. You can use verbal options up to and including deadly force if the scenario rises to that.
JENKINS: And Pollard says in the heat of the moment, well-trained officers are more likely to use their words instead of their bullets. For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Jenkins in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.