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

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

Officials said the technology, called the Apex Officer, is a mix of scenario training augmented with a virtual reality headset that allows an instructor to place trainees in more than a dozen different locations, including suburban streets, hospitals or schools.

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

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

The setup consists of scanners on tall poles framing the roughly rectangular training area, capturing the trainee’s movements and giving this information to the simulation system. These are portable and allow the agency to reside in almost any room.

The trainees wear a backpack with a box the size of a wireless router and a headset that allows them to see and hear the simulated area around them. They might be in a room in the mayor’s office, but in the simulation they could be in a school, grocery store, or apartment complex.

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

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

The instructor can control all of the “characters” in the simulation, whether criminal or civilian, and can speak into the intern’s headset from either a police officer’s perspective or a “character” in the room with the intern, the first lieutenant said. Chris Amling, who gave demos of the system to the media Tuesday.

Amling said that how persuasive a trainee is to the system depends on the skill of acting and the level of technical control the trainer can manage, but it gives the opportunity to have unique interactions that written training programs can’t match.

“It’s hard to find people who can do that,” Amling admitted.

Higgins said the instructors’ experience working on police calls over the years helps them create compelling scenarios for new recruits and other deputies in the simulation.

Higgins said that although trainees’ equipment includes compatible dummy pistols, tasers and shotguns, training should never be violent. He said the trainee’s ability to talk to the trainer as if they were on a community service call helps them train people skills and de-escalate.

“That allows us to go beyond shooting, not filming the script,” Higgins said.

At a demonstration led by Amling, Representative Josh Dunn persuaded a “suspected” protester to drop his knife and go with him to a local shelter for help, all without drawing a gun.

Omling said the system can generate scenarios with militants and hostage scenarios, but that’s a far cry from the most common scenario officers encounter, so the ability to conduct day-to-day police interactions is valuable.

Higgins said agency chaplains have asked the sheriff if they can use the system to help train officers on how to respectfully deliver death notices to family members.

Higgins said he could “certainly” see his deputies draw inspiration from real-world police work to recreate them in training simulators.

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

When it comes to improvements, Higgins said they’ll always push for more realistic models and even more diverse scenarios to put their officers in, but he’s happy with the program as it is.

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

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