Why simulation training is good for officers, agencies and the public
Officers who use simulation training programs are more confident, use less force
Sponsored by VirTra
By Margarita Birnbaum for Police1 BrandFocus
In the nearly four decades that he’s been in law enforcement, Ken Wallentine has seen plenty of changes that have made departments more professional, adopt effective crime-prevention strategies and raise the bar on policing standards. However, the veteran policing leader says that one area where agencies have made notable strides is in use-of-force training.
Perhaps more than changes in use-of-force policy manuals, teaching officers how to identify and apply more effective and appropriate tactics has gone a long way in improving officers’ performance. And Wallentine, the police chief of West Jordan, Utah, says interactive simulators, such as the ones designed by VirTra, are an indispensable training tool because the scenarios and environmental conditions they provide are as close as anything can get to the real-life circumstances and surroundings officers face on the street.
“It makes the training stick,” said Wallentine, a use-of-force specialist who is often called to be an expert witness in criminal and civil cases involving officers accused of using excessive force to detain suspects. “The officers walk out having had a tactical experience and an academic experience, but it’s also an emotional experience – and because of that, they are better prepared for dealing with an actual situation on the street.”
For more than 15 years, VirTra has offered simulation training for police departments across the country. The curriculum includes simulations of active shooter incidents, high-risk vehicle stops and crisis de-escalation situations. Each scenario has a variety of potential branches or outcomes that draw on the years of experience from officers around the country, as well as lessons learned from events from major events in policing that changed patrol strategies, restraint policies and weapons training.
SIMULATORS BENEFIT OFFICERS, AGENCIES
Use-of-force training has come a long way since Wallentine learned basic firearms and arrest tactics that were taught in the early 1980s and had been the standard teachings for decades before then.
At the time, officers were taught to fire their weapons in static positions and did not train with high-powered weapons. To control difficult suspects, officers were instructed to quickly force them to comply with their commands by using a more aggressive approach that officers commonly call “ask-tell-make” or “ask-tell-compel.”
While major events such as the deadly shootouts with bank robbers in Norco and Miami in the 1980s brought about notable changes in weapons-related practices, which included more comprehensive firearms training, advances in virtual reality technology have significantly changed training strategies over the past 20 years.
For example, simulation programs have become much more sophisticated, corresponding accessories more realistic, and computer hardware – including high-definition screens – has improved by leaps and bounds. In addition, the scenarios offered in police officer simulation programs have become more realistic, Wallentine says.
The simulators benefit both rookie officers who need to shore up their skills and well-seasoned veterans who need to keep up with new practices and refresh their abilities, Wallentine says. With the guidance of an instructor, he adds, officers who use the simulator assess their skills and learn what they need to shore up.
“That’s one of the beauties of a simulator,” Wallentine said. “You can put officers in scenarios that aren’t terribly common, but their performance is critical in that situation.”
One of the things that makes the interactive simulators much more effective than traditional classroom instruction such as passively watching videos is that officers can better assess and use all of the tools on their toolbelt together with verbal commands – and therefore practice and improve communication skills.
For at least a decade, Wallentine says, departments across the country have put a premium on de-escalation training to defuse tense situations that may unfold in calls that may range from traffic stops to arrests to aggravated assaults to suicide attempts. Honing those kills is critical for officers to keep themselves safe, to avoid hurting the suspect and bystanders, he adds.
“Most rookie officers go into the field with artificial confidence in their ability to persuade people,” Wallentine said. “I think officers fairly soon realize that one of the most valuable tools they can sharpen in their tool belt is the ability to read others, to be an effective listener and to be an effective communicator.”
Simulation-based training may also help departments better address concerns of ethnic and racial bias in policing tactics. As more agencies incorporate implicit bias training for officers following fatal use-of-force incidents, such as the death of George Floyd, simulation programs may prove a key tool to help officers become more aware of biases they may have and learn to be less influenced by them.
CONFIDENT OFFICERS USE LESS FORCE
Officers are not the only ones who reap the rewards of simulation training.
For police departments who use simulation to teach recruits in their academies, simulators are a good way to identify officers who may not be cut out for the job and may become a liability to the department and the community if they are hired. It is also a cost-effective way to train everyone from the rank and file to the top brass.
In addition, Wallentine says, using real-life simulation-based programs to train officers should be every department’s go-to choice for training whenever possible because it benefits the communities the officers protect and serve. Officers who go through simulation training emerge feeling more confident about their skills and abilities, in part, he says, because “they see the possibilities, they see the alternatives to use of force, they gain the ability to look beyond the immediate minute.”
“Sure, there are times when they've got to act in incredibly compressed periods of time,” Wallentine said. “But at the end of the day, the officers that are confident because they have highly realistic training are likely to use less force.”
Visit VirTra for more information about training simulators.