The use of force by police has been one of the most contentious issues in the country over the last few years and the Willmar, Minn., Police Department is using technology to try to ensure the best possible outcome for a use-of-force scenario by its officers.
This summer, the department purchased a nearly $20,000 use-of-force mobile training lab that includes a life-size video screen and the simulation of more than 800 scenarios that an officer might face. The department had used similar training tools in the past, but those offered a limited number of scenarios and after a while, the officers knew what was coming.
This simulator, offered by Ti Training Corp., in Colorado, boasts unlimited scenarios as each of the 800 can “branch” into a slightly different scene, according to Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt. “The instructor can toggle it to do many different things so the scenario plays out several different ways.”
The department, having used training simulators in the past, decided in 2015 it wanted one for itself and went to the city with a deployment goal of 2017. The city granted the funds and the simulator was unveiled this summer.
“We really try to work hard on simulation, especially for the low-frequency, high-risk events our officers might respond to,” Felt said. “We started looking at different ways to train — a lot with soft guns, with Simunition rounds where you can put a special barrel in actual guns and shoot a paint ball bullet, but those are expensive and can cause damage.”
There are less expensive simulators available, but the department found some to be less realistic, with the graphics and portability unable to match the Ti Training system. “The nice thing is, it’s an overall use-of-force simulator, so it’s got a pepper spray container that shoots a laser, a flashlight scenario, simulating nighttime, which makes it much more realistic and lifelike,” Felt said.
When an officer goes into the simulator, he must leave any real weapons at the door. He will be equipped with an actual duty handgun, specially fitted to shoot a laser that contains a carbon dioxide cannister, so it recoils and sounds like a real gun.
The officer is given brief instructions on what he might be encountering when the simulation begins, and he is expected to follow federal and state laws on use of force and department policies. “He may get a brief scenario like, ‘You’ve just initiated a traffic stop and are walking up to the vehicle, or you got called to a local mall for an active shooter,’” Felt said. “From there the video will start and the instructor will be watching at all times.”
The mobile unit has defensive tactics mats stationed as cover for officers—a tree or corner of a building—in case the officer is engaged by a potential shooter. The officer is graded on his use of force, if he initiates it, of course, and also on his verbal commands. The video is played back and will show where fired rounds hit and when they were fired, and the officer will have to justify why he took the action he took.
The mobile unit takes a couple of hours to set up and take down. The department plans to use it for a week at least each quarter, along with the usual firearms training. It is sharing the system with the local Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office, which chipped in on some accessories. The company sends out new scenarios on a quarterly basis, so the training never gets stale.