ROGERS — New virtual reality technology at the police department provides enhanced scenario-based training in de-escalation and crisis intervention that can save lives.
The department is the first law enforcement agency in Northwest Arkansas to use the Apex Officer virtual reality training simulator, according to Police Chief Jonathan Best.
The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office became the first agency in the state to implement the Apex Officer system last summer. The Maynard School District and municipal police departments in Van Buren and Tuckerman have also purchased the simulator, according to representatives of the Las Vegas-based company.
The city paid $73,912 for the Apex system, including two headsets, according to Finance Director Casey Wilhelm.
The technology creates a more immersive environment than many other training simulators, using a headset and headphones to create a virtual 3D environment, Best said. In contrast, traditional simulator training for law enforcement uses a screen or a series of screens to create the training environment, he said.
Before the new Apex system, the Rogers department would write out training scenarios and officers would wear masks and act as people in the scenario, according to Don Lisi, a training officer with the department.
The department adopted the virtual reality system in early March and has since conducted four continuing education sessions with it, Lisi said.
Continuing education is a series of lessons that every officer must take each year. The training involves online instruction as well as three days of in-person instruction that includes defensive tactics, firearms training and building clearance exercises, he said.
The department’s curriculum is approved by the state Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training; some of the training is required by the commission and some is additional training required by the department, he said.
The Apex Officer technology has been “revolutionary” to the department’s scenario-based training, which can be the most valuable training for experienced officers, according to Lisi.
During training, an officer carries the system’s computer in the form of a backpack, which is connected to a headset with earphones that cover the officer’s eyes and ears.
Students can also be equipped with accompanying pistols, tasers, rifles or a versatile wand, which in one scenario could act as a baton or pepper spray, he said. The gun looks like an airsoft gun with technology added for compatibility with the virtual reality system, he said.
The system does not simulate the recoil of firing a gun, although the experience of looking through the sights is surprisingly accurate, according to Lisi.
“I was very curious how they would make it possible, and I don’t understand how they did it, but they did,” he said. “You can look down your sights and it’s like looking down real sights. It’s very, very realistic.”
The headphones convey sound in directional stereo, so a sound in the virtual environment behind the officer’s left side will sound like it’s coming from that direction, he said.
The intern can experience a wide range of scenarios which may involve interaction with another intern and meeting people in various crisis situations.
A strength of the Apex Officer system is that scenarios can be adjusted by trainers as the officer responds to the situation, according to Lisi. A training officer sitting at a screen in the training room can control seven or eight people in the virtual environment — even with the ability to talk to the officer through them, he said.
Within the simulated world of the training, an officer might encounter someone in the midst of a mental health episode or respond to a call about domestic violence or public intoxication, he said. Such encounters are common for city police and require officers to quickly decide how to respond, he said.
Other training simulators may be limited to scenarios where an officer must use force, but the Apex training allows trainers and trainees to practice de-escalating the situation, according to Lisi.
“If we can de-escalate, we’re doing our job right,” he said. “The best day in law enforcement is when no one gets hurt and everyone follows the rules.”
Lisi estimated that at least 90% of the training scenarios officers have encountered through the VR system have not required officers to draw their weapons, he said.
“Not every situation we respond to is a guns-drawn Hawaii Five-0 type of thing,” he said. “It’s, we show up, somebody has a crisis and we have to put the pieces of the puzzle together in a hurry and be able to determine how we can help this person.”
Mark McGraw, training officer for the Van Buren Police Department, said the department recently received the Apex system and plans to implement it soon.
McGraw said he expects the system, in addition to providing immersive training, will also make it easier for officers to find time to train between calls.
Departments across the state struggle to recruit and retain officers for reasons including pay, competition between departments in neighboring cities and the public perception of police officers, he said.
It’s hard to get officers off the street for training when the department needs more officers to answer calls, he said. Additionally, inadequate training can be a liability issue for a department, he said.
With the Apex system, which can be set up quickly and doesn’t require much space, Van Buren officers will be able to receive an hour of scenario-based training between answering calls, he said.
The system can cost about $70,000, which is more than many departments can afford, according to McGraw. The Van Buren department received a grant for the simulator, he said.
“Opening it was like Christmas Day,” he said.