New virtual training program helps Pulaski County officers with de-escalation methods

The Pulaski County sheriff’s office on Tuesday unveiled a virtual-reality training program intended to give officers another tool to teach de-escalation in stressful situations, the sheriff said.

The technology, called Apex Officer, is a blend of role-play scenario training enhanced by a virtual reality headset that lets the instructor put trainees in more than a dozen different locations, including suburban streets, hospitals or schools, officials said.

Sheriff Eric Higgins’ office is the first agency in Arkansas to use the technology for training, but Higgins said police in 44 other states employ the simulated scenarios in training.

The high-tech training system costs $150,000 for enough equipment to set up training areas in two places at once, and enough equipment to accommodate up to four trainees at once.

The setup consists of scanners on tall posts that frame the roughly rectangular training area, picking up the movements of the trainee and giving that information to the simulation system. These are portable and allow the agency to set up in almost any room.

Trainees don a backpack with a box about the size of a wireless router on it and a headset that lets them see and hear the simulated area around them. They may be in a room at the sheriff’s office, but in the simulation they can be in a school, or a grocery store, or an apartment complex.

“We don’t have to go to specific buildings. We can set the scenario up here at the facility,” Higgins said.

This saves money, time and planning, although Higgins stressed this would supplement, not replace, regular on-site training for responding to crime within the community.

A trainer can control all of the “characters” in the simulation, be they criminal or civilian, and can speak into the trainee’s headset either from the perspective of a police dispatch officer or a “character” in the room with the trainee, said Lt. . Chris Ameling, who ran demos of the system for media members Tuesday.

How convincing the system is to the trainee depends on the acting skill and level of technical control the instructor can manage, Ameling said, but it gives the opportunity to have unique interactions that scripted training programs couldn’t match.

“It’s hard to find people who can do that,” Ameling acknowledged.

The experience the trainers have working on police calls over the years helps them create convincing scenarios for new recruits and other deputies in the simulation, Higgins said.

Although the trainee setups include compatible dummy pistols, tasers and rifles, the training never has to get violent, Higgins said. The ability for the trainee to talk to the instructor as if they were on a service call in the community helps them train people skills and de-escalation, he said.

“This allows us to go beyond a shoot, don’t shoot scenario,” Higgins said.

In a demonstration led by Ameling, Deputy Josh Dunn convinced a disturbance “suspect” to drop his knife and go to a local shelter with him for aid, all without drawing a pistol.

The system can generate scenarios with armed gunmen and hostage scenarios, Ameling said, but that’s far from the most common scenario officers encounter, so the ability to play out day-to-day police interactions is valuable.

The agency’s chaplains have even asked the sheriff if they could use the system to help train officers on how to respectfully deliver death notifications to family members, Higgins said.

Higgins said he “absolutely” can see his deputies drawing inspiration from real-world policing actions to recreate in the training simulators.

None of the police officials named a specific incident, but the ability to use the system to train for school shooter scenarios was touted, with Ameling showing a large virtual school map that could be populated with civilians and a shooter.

When it comes to improvements, Higgins said they would always push for more lifelike models and even more varied scenarios to put their officers into, but that he is pleased with the software as it is.

“I think it’s a great tool that will help us improve our training,” Higgins said.

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