The Palm Beach Police Department purchased a virtual reality simulator for $300,000 to help train officers to de-escalate conflicts. The purchase comes amid national cries for drastic police reform.
(TNS) — As police agencies across the country review their policies and procedures in the wake of protests over police brutality spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Palm Beach Police Department has added virtual reality technology to help train officers.
On Thursday, the department presented its new VirTra 300 training simulator at the South Fire Rescue station on South Ocean Boulevard. Palm Beach Police and Fire Foundation paid for the $300,000 system.
De-escalation and stress inoculation are key for removing the risks of "tunnel vision," which may lead to incorrect responses and use of unnecessary force, Palm Beach Police spokesperson Michael Ogrodnick said. With a simulator such as VirTra, instructors can observe and debrief officers' response to each scenario.
The simulator allows the instructor operating the software to portray 284 scenarios that officers could face in real life. VirTra also lets instructors upload locations from their own cities to re-create streets and places familiar to officers.
It also uses 4K HD video for more visual realism, and firearm replicas that behave like real guns.
"The VirTra 300 use-of-force response to resistance training simulator offers five screens of 300 degrees of training environment," said Ogrodnick. "Such scenarios can vary from a school shooting to an active shooter situation in a movie theater, or a suspect that is on the autism spectrum."
"A stress response usually causes heart rate to speed up, blood pressure to rise and muscle tension. These scenarios are realistic enough to produce the same emotional and physical responses as an actual incident," Ogrodnick said.
The VirTra system includes a device called Threat Fire, which looks like a smaller version of a taser, but with a lesser electric charge.
While running through the simulations, officers carry the Threat Fire with them, giving the officer a little shock as a response to their action or inaction, allowing them to see what they might be doing wrong.
"Our goal with the system is to teach our officers how to deescalate in a use of force scenario. If they can better control physiological responses like increased heart rate, their respiration going up, their breathing going up, they can better control the encounter," Ogrognick said.
Palm Beach Police Chief Nicholas Caristo said he first looked into purchasing the VirTra simulator two years ago.
"What I like about (VirTra) is that it addresses different scenarios, including those involving mental health, and teaches officers to recognize different cues," Caristo said. "It amps up officers' nervous systems and teaches them to calm down and not react, which is usually what happens in the heat of the moment when adrenaline is rushing."
An added benefit of VirTra is that it also can be used to help officers and instructors address potential explicit and implicit gender bias inside their departments, said Lang Bartel, VirTra's training director.
"Specifically, there are a couple of scenarios that analyze this. We have two male subjects in the exact same attire — one is a black male and the other is white — engaging in the exact same behaviors," Bartel said. "What that allows agencies to do, is put people in situations where instructors can evaluate how officers respond and address potential situations of implicit bias. We want to be able to build the tools that allow officers to perform their job correctly."
Bartel explained that the mistakes that can lead to an unnecessary shooting — and perhaps bias as a driving factor of excessive force — comes long before an officer pulls out his or her gun. It can happen when an officer decides to approach a scene in a certain way. That's when the simulator's instructor support comes in.
"The Virtual Instructor (VI) will walk through the scenario with the officer, detailing the tactical principles, legal principles, pre-force indicators and behavior threat cues that were involved," he said.
For Bartel, feedback or "debriefing" is the most critical part of the training.
"It's more about questioning the student than telling them what they did wrong or what they did right so they can arrive at those realizations on their own. If I engage them in a sort of Socratic questioning, they arrive to those answers pretty quickly," he said.
Palm Beach Police and Fire Foundation Co-founder and President John Scarpa said his organization is committed to providing training equipment that the police and fire department needs.
"We added some bells and whistles to it," he said about the purchase of the VirTra. "I feel like a kid who just got a band new bicycle seeing this thing working," Scarpa said.
©2020 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.