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VR Training for Police Cadets Simulates Real Scenarios

The Apex Officer Virtual Reality system at the police science program at Hawkeye Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was first used as a firearm training tool but evolved to be a key piece of training for local cadets.

police SUVs with lights on top at night
Adobe Stock/Tomasz Zajda
Cadets at the police academy in Cedar Falls, Iowa, first have to obtain a two- or four-year degree in criminal justice or police science before entering the 11-week training course. That’s when the fun starts at Hawkeye Community College’s police science program, where cadets train on an Apex Officer Virtual Reality system.

The system was used at first mostly for firearms instruction, but worked so well it has evolved into a key aspect in many different disciplines for law enforcement.

“When I stepped into the training aspect of it, [the police science program] was interested in using it as sort of a 'shoot or no shoot tool' on how to handle firearms,” said Capt. Shea McNamara from the Cedar Falls Public Safety Department and an adjunct instructor at the police science program. “Now it’s become a tool that we’ve used for many different disciplines but predominantly as a training tool for cadets and for explorer programs — people interested in law enforcement, such as high school kids.”

The VR platform isn’t scripted beforehand like other similar systems that have scenarios built in. This system is run by a trainer, in this case McNamara, who can change the script as the scenario progresses.

“The system is interactive, with characters in it which are run by the trainer, and so [students] can respond in different ways,” McNamara said.

“We can switch the environment to incorporate a lot of different environments,” said Ben Scholl, law enforcement director at Hawkeye. “And then basically they go through the situation and it’s kind of like an opportunity for them to learn and apply everything they’ve learned up to that point, but it allows us to go and do a debrief with them, verifying or correcting issues.”

Scholl and McNamara travel to different police agencies armed with the system, which includes VR goggles, a plastic handgun and a taser. The system includes myriad scenarios, such as back alleys, apartments and offices along with characters controlled by McNamara.

“It allows us the opportunity for the officers, especially small departments, to put their officers into some pretty complex, dynamic scenarios that we can play out in real time between them and a facilitator,” Scholl said.

“We’re looking at communication skills, the tactics they use and their knowledge and application of law, so we look at all those things and assess them on their response,” he said. “We do it in virtual reality, but we also do it in more of a live scenario.”

Scholl said the lifelike reality of the system allows cadets to reflect on those instances when they are learning about search and seizure, criminal law, arrest procedures, building search tactics and vehicle stops — all scenarios that they have experienced through virtual reality.

“With this system there is nothing that’s pre-recorded so you’re talking with a live facilitator just as if you were doing live role play, but it’s over a microphone, through a headset, so you’re having this encounter with the officer and the role player can react based on experience,” Scholl said.

“We’ve seen a lot of value in that and the ability to identify areas we need to focus on.”
Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.