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 mixture of role-playing scenario training enhanced by a virtual reality headset that allows the instructor to place trainees in more than a dozen different locations, including streets suburbs, 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 are using the simulated scenarios for training.

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

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

Trainees wear a backpack with a box the size of a wireless router on it and headphones that allow them to see and hear the simulated area around them. They might be in a room in the sheriff’s office, but in the simulation they might be in a school, grocery store, or apartment complex.

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

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

A trainer can control all “characters” in the simulation, whether 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 conducted demonstrations of the system for members of the media on Tuesday.

Belief in the system for the trainee depends on the acting skill and the level of technical control the instructor can handle, Ameling said, but it provides the ability to have unique interactions that scripted training programs couldn’t. not equal.

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

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

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

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

In a protest led by Ameling, Deputy Josh Dunn convinced a troubled ‘suspect’ to drop his knife and go with him to a local shelter for help, all without pulling out a gun .

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

Agency chaplains even asked the sheriff if they could use the system to help train officers on how to respectfully forward death notifications to family members, Higgins said.

Higgins said he “absolutely” could see his deputies taking inspiration from real-life police actions and recreating them in the training simulators.

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

As for improvements, Higgins said they would always push for more realistic models and even more varied scenarios for their officers, but he’s happy with the software as it is.

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

Ryan H. Bowman