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Police Add Virtual Training to Tool Belt

The system allows more training on de-escalating situations and responding to resistance.

Thursday, May 19, 2022
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Officer Juan Duran gets suited up for a virtual reality training session. He adds tracking devices to his wrists so his arm movements can become part of the virtual world he enters.

In a space doubling as an exercise facility, Officer Juan Duran stands on an expanse of blue mat, a virtual reality headset on and trackers on his wrists and his tools. He’s training.

Last fall, the Hillsborough Police Department purchased a virtual reality training system for about $60,000 that allows up to two officers to train together on de-escalating situations and responding to resistance.

“We are looking for every opportunity to de-escalate a situation if it is possible and feasible,” said Sgt. William Parker, the department’s training officer.

The training system was demonstrated Wednesday to Hillsborough elected leaders, staff and media. It is also being used to ensure officer safety and to fine-tune work done on a daily basis, like vehicle stops.

“Training for the department is crucial, and this is a way for us to be able to train officers when we don’t have the facilities to do certain things,” Parker said. “We can do the training in a very controlled environment, and weather doesn’t hamper this. It’s another tool we have in our training belt.”

The virtual reality training immerses officers in scenarios provided through the purchased system, such as an active shooter situation, as well as ones the department devises. Officers undergoing training are told what their scenario will be and the outcome expected, but their responses are unscripted.

“What we like to see is what they would do out in the field,” Parker said.

The demonstration

In Duran’s virtual session, he responded to a call of a man with a hammer threatening to jump from a parking deck. Parker dispatched the call and controlled the scenario, providing the responses for the distressed man.

The real Duran could be viewed walking on the training mat, gesturing and taking steps back as he talked to the virtual person in distress, asking him to step down from a ledge and promising he would take a step back himself.

On the screen monitored by the trainer, Duran’s avatar could be seen interacting with a man at a parking deck from multiple views, including a body camera view that allows the trainer to see where the officer’s eyes are. Rookie officers, in particular, must be trained to keep their eyes on a suspect’s hands.

“The characters don’t look very real, but it does get pretty immersive,” Duran said after the session in which he was able to de-escalate the situation and get the man to agree to be transported to available community resources.

The virtual training feels realistic to a point, he said. “The big difference is I know I’m safe here,” Duran said. “In reality, you never know if you’re safe.”

Preparing for real life

Basic law enforcement training is limited, Lt. Andy Simmons noted. The virtual training can create more real-life situations and can be manipulated to interact with the officers and their responses. Officers also can view the sessions for improvements and can repeat iterations of a particular scenario to fine-tune their responses. Simmons noted this is important for those times when an officer will have to use force.

“We have to have our officers prepared,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Kathleen Ferguson, who was among the board members who viewed and tried out the training system. “The only way to prepare them is to give them scenarios where they can fail.”

Hillsborough has 28 full-time sworn officers. About 18 have used the virtual training, which started being offered earlier this year. The goal is to have all officers using the system monthly.

“We’re seeing what we tend to expect from our officers in how they deal with situations,” Parker noted. “In the scenarios I’ve run, the officers have been very professional and very empathetic, and they do the same thing on the street and on calls.”