Indiana County Uses VR for More Realistic Police Training

Indiana County Uses VR for More Realistic Police Training

(TNS) — Sirens blare as panicked students race down school halls while officers work to locate an active shooter. A man holds a baby by a ledge, threatening to drop the infant following a tense domestic dispute. An officer finds himself attempting to calm a distressed individual who is holding a knife.

These scenarios serve not only as snapshots of situations officers encounter but a few among hundreds of different scenarios in VirTra, a virtual reality simulator for police training.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Department recently installed VirTra at their Crown Point headquarters this year after the system was purchased in 2021. Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. said this is the latest technology the department has added to its tool kit.

“It’s very stressful. It’s not like a video game,” Martinez said. “It’s about giving out real commands, and everything can change in a heartbeat. It can escalate or deescalate, and all of that is determined on how you interact with that individual. Your training kicks in and it’s important to learn from your mistakes here than in the real world.”

Only about 20 of the type of VirTra systems the sheriff’s department currently has exists in police departments nationwide, police said.

The system consists of multiple large projection screens surrounding a platform. The 300-degree high-resolution screens, vibrating platform, fake weaponry and surround sound culminate to create a realistic experience.

As up to four officers step up to the platform, they must use verbal commands, body language, negotiation tactics, situational awareness, equipment, fake weapons and more to navigate tense situations. In the control center, depending on the officers’ actions, trainers can choose different ways the subjects on the screen respond.

Lake County Sheriff’s Detective Reggie Sanders is one of the officers who has trained on VirTra and he is also trained to operate the system.

“Basically when we are in a scenario, we can control the situations,” Sanders said. “Some of them have many options. Others are limited. But based off officer’s reactions, we can escalate or deescalate the subjects. So if the officer is doing a good job and speaking with the subject, then we can tone that subject down. So based off the officer’s reaction, that’s how we dictate which way we want the program to go.”

Martinez said one of the main focuses is the scenarios that include individuals experiencing a mental health crisis or incidents involving people who may have developmental disorders. In one scenario, an officer encounters a boy with autism who a store employee believed was shoplifting. Other scenarios include people who are threatening self-harm or to harm others, in which verbal negotiation skills are key.

“When you’re dealing with someone who is suicidal and wants to jump off a bridge, instead of trying to rush in and grab the individual, this teaches officers to calm situations down, talk to the individual, talk them out of jumping from the bridge or hurting himself or others, and it does build a lot of confidence for our officers encountering things like this,” Martinez said.

The move to acquire VirTra goes beyond just building a higher-tech police force, the sheriff said, but zeroing in on how police respond to mental health and addiction problems.

“So I knew that was very important, when talking nationwide about defunding the police, and more over what they were really talking about was to direct some of that funding in law enforcement to social workers,” Martinez said. “What I did with the county council, is I took it a step further and asked for more funding, and it was for qualified mental health professionals. We have two full-time qualified mental health professionals here at the department. I know that mental health illness and addiction is an issue here in Northwest Indiana, probably around the nation.

“So we offer that help to those suffering from addiction to come to the Lake County Sheriff’s Department to seek help. We offer counseling. Especially in this day and age when we have certain organizations and institutions that are backlogged and are months behind and trying to We can get you in right away with one of our mental health professionals.

“Get the counseling you need and get you a pathway to recovery and also help those individuals before they end up breaking the law and in our jail.”

The sheriff said at this time VirTra is being used by Lake County Sheriff’s police and recruits, however they will allow other departments to use it in the future.

“More importantly it’s part of our training now,” Martinez said. “Every officer must go through this training. It really gets the officer emotionally involved. … We’d rather have our officers make their mistakes and learn here in a virtual scenario to prepare them for the real-life encounters with citizens. And again, in dealing with deescalation, that’s very important.

“This is the type of technology we are seeing across the country and we are fortunate to have it here at the sheriff’s department.”

© 2022 The Times (Munster, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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