Virtually prepared: High-tech training system puts HPD in a variety of scenarios Community

Hillsborough Police Officer Juan Duran is on the top level of a parking deck. He was there in response to a call about a man who was threatening to jump from the top floor. Officer Duran sees the man standing on the thick, concrete wall that wraps around the top of the building. He also sees the man is holding a hammer.

The man sees Officer Duran. “Don’t come any closer,” he yells. “I’m gonna jump! Stay back!”

The police officer stops in his tracks, holds up his hands, and calls out to the man, “It’s OK, I’m not here to arrest you. I’m here to help. See, I don’t have anything in my hands. I just want to talk. Can we talk?” Officer Duran’s voice is clear, but not demanding.

“Talk is fine, but it won’t do any good,” the man responds, looking back over the ledge of the parking deck.

“What’s going on?” Officer Duran asks. “What’s your name?” The man gives his name, and then tells Officer Duran that he doesn’t have any reason for living. He said he lost his job and his wife left him and took their kids with her.

Officer Duran continues talking with the man, now calling him by his name. He asks the man about what he looks forward to, and tells him that no one wants him to jump because someone called 9-1-1. He tells the man about ways he can get help, and that he would like to help. Officer Duran reiterates that he doesn’t have his gun out, and his taser is put away.

“Do you love your kids?” Officer Duran asked the man.

“More than anything else,” he responded.

“That’s 100 percent the reason we do not want you to jump off the building,” Officer Duran said.

Ultimately, the man drops the hammer and moves away from the ledge of the building. He agrees to being handcuffed and taken to the hospital for evaluation.

Officer Duran approaches the man, who has turned his back with his arms behind him, and puts the cuffs on him. Suddenly, everything around goes to a bright blue grid of squares, like giant graph paper. The parking deck disappears. The man in cuffs is gone in a blip.

Officer Duran is standing on a blue padded floor in a large room. There is a table with several monitors and laptops, and Sgt. William ‘Buddy’ Parker is sitting at the table with a headset and microphone. Officer Duran has on a helmet that covers his ears and eyes, and is equipped with a microphone. He has other technology strapped to his wrists.

Last October, the Hillsborough Police Department received training equipment that uses virtual reality technology to place users in a wide variety of scenarios that provide enhanced interaction. The equipment has been in use at HPD since January, and has been well-received by officers.

“This is a virtual training simulator that allows us to do de-escalation as well as use-of-force or response-to-resistance training,” said Sgt. Parker, who handles training for the HPD. “The scenarios that we’ve been through with the officers, we’ve had very positive feedback. Obviously, it’s a new technology for a lot of them so they’re still testing and getting their feet wet with it. They’re a little nervous when doing things in VR.”

Another benefit of the VR technology is that it allows members of the force to gain experience and training in scenarios that would otherwise be difficult to set up or close off for live training. For instance, Hillsborough has one parking deck that is in frequent use. Logistically, it would be nearly impossible to close off that facility for a full day of training. HPD officers can be plugged into situations — like the one in which Officer Duran participated — to practice negotiation and communication skills. In his particular scenario, Officer Duran was able to get the desired result.

“What we want our officers to do is to talk that person down without having to use force and get them to help without anything else,” said Sgt. Parker, who also participated in the scenario, giving voice to the man threatening to jump. From his seat at the controls, Sgt. Parker can click on other options to create hundreds of different options, leading to hundreds of different outcomes.

“There are agencies around the country that use this type of training simulator, but there are also other formats where you’re in a room where images and scenarios are projected onto screens,” Sgt. Parker said. “This (VR) is more immersive and you feel like you’re in the situation.”

That is one of the reasons the floor is padded. It’s not unheard of for an officer doing the training to try to lean against a virtual car. Life-like visuals aside, one of the most important features of the VR training system is how role playing emphasizes the importance of communication skills. Most of the scenarios, at some point, involve conversation.

“It’s a big point when you think about who we are recruiting into the profession,” said HPD Chief Duane Hampton. “We have to find people who can communicate well. That is critically important. That’s why we do a lot of interviews with them. We’re trying to assess their ability to communicate with others because that is the number one most-important skill, and the one our folks use every day, day in, day out. It’s more important than their driving, more important than their firearms. More important than anything is that ability to communicate.”

But even with the high-tech, VR training systems being used at HPD and other law-enforcement departments nationwide, one might still wonder if the scenarios are close enough to what can happen in reality. For instance, the police department response to the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, is being investigated for what appeared to be a breakdown in whether members of that force followed training for active-shooter situations.

Is it even possible for an immersive training method, like VR, to prepare officers to properly and quickly respond to situations that potentially put their own lives in danger? Chief Hampton said one of the main purposes in training with the VR technology is what he called “stress inoculation,” where the trainee is repeatedly exposed to high-stress scenarios to create a greater chance of an automatic response if and when the officer is involved in a real situation.

“It can be very immersive, but the idea behind it still is that it generates the need to make decisions and to react so that when you encounter this situation in the real world, you’re not starting at zero,” Chief Hampton said. “You’re starting with a base of knowledge and a pattern of response, a pattern of behavior. And then also it gives you the opportunity to learn. You go into it, you encounter it, you don’t respond the way we need to respond, you get an opportunity to do it again.”

Chief Hampton is quick to point out that the VR training is just one in a menu of training methods used by the HPD. Classroom training is given to explore concepts and principles. There is role-play training that employs live actors. “Sim-units” training is conducted using paint-pellet guns that closely resemble what they use on the job.

An area of ​​concern that grabs a lot of attention on all sides of the political spectrum, and often falls on the shoulders of law enforcement, is how to prepare agencies to respond to calls that involve, or potentially involve, someone with mental health issues. Chief Hampton sees the new VR system as being a valuable training tool.

“That’s one of the good things about this system is it’s very customizable. There are pre-designed scenarios within it, but you can also have the operator interacting as the suspect, in terms of communicating, so they can be role playing, giving the officer clues about mental illness. Again, it works in concert with everything else we do. No training we do is just one thing. We do mental health training, we’ve done all kinds of different training for the officers, and the VR situation is a place where they get to put those skills into practice,” Chief Hampton said.

In terms of an active shooter situation, Hampton said the basic principal is to get as many law enforcement officers at the location as quickly as possible. The first on the scene is expected to make an assessment. If there is a shooter actively engaged in harming people, that single law enforcement responder is expected to go to the threat. Ideally, there will be more responders on the scene. Chief Hampton said active-shooter calls dispatch police, Sheriff, and highway patrol, and there’s even training in place for how to work across law enforcement departments.

“North Carolina has a great rapid-deployment curriculum, which is a training we do to deal with these kinds of situations,” he said. “It’s across the board, so we should all have had some level of this training.”

The new VR technology is also seen as a recruiting tool, as potential employees often prefer to work for departments that illustrate the importance of training.

“We’ve actually been very lucky. Our attrition rate is very slow,” said Lt. Andy Simmons, who is over administration services. “As we lose an officer, we replace an officer. We’re much more fortunate than some of our brother and sister agencies around us. But this is just another tool for recruiting. For us to be able to use this kind of training is what people are looking for and looking to the future using the technology and then moving on from there.”


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