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How training simulators improve officer performance

Whether training marksmanship, decision-making, or de-escalation skills, simulators can help instructors provide objective feedback on officer performance

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Training simulators have been proven to develop speed and accuracy, and improve use-of-force decision-making and overall combat ability while reducing training time, logistics and cost.

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By Todd Fletcher

Increased media attention, public opinion backlash, and law enforcement’s desire to reduce risk to officers and citizens have led to departments reassessing the role of police in our communities. Command staff and instructors alike have been seeking better ways to train officers to respond to the increasing challenges officers face on the street. However, conventional classroom lectures and actor-based exercises may be insufficient to prepare officers for real-world scenarios.

This is where training simulators have been proven to develop speed and accuracy, and improve use-of-force decision-making and overall combat ability while reducing training time, logistics and cost. In addition, training simulators are a proven solution to improve de-escalation tactics while offering a safe and realistic training environment.

One of the best features of training simulators is they offer realistic scenario libraries with branching outcomes that can be chosen by the instructor to meet certain performance objectives. From offices to schools, jails, traffic stops, domestics, active shooters, or encounters with the mentally ill, training simulators provide a variety of content and context for all assignments.

Training simulators give instructors the ability to customize training scenarios to meet the specific needs of their officers. Instructors can branch scenarios or adjust the difficulty of scenarios to match the skill level of each officer. Less experienced officers can work through scenes at a more basic, skill-building level, while experienced officers can use more advanced scenarios making the training more challenging, effective and interesting.

Decision-making and marksmanship

In a 2021 study from Carleton University in Canada titled, “A Reasonable Officer: Examining the Relationships Among Stress, Training, and Performance in a Highly Realistic Lethal Force Scenario,” researchers found that in high-stress scenarios, officer performance is reduced in critical skill categories including marksmanship, quality of skill execution, proportionality of force applied and memory.

One of the conclusions they reached was that “stress response also appears to have differential effects, whereby rehearsed and automated skills are influenced to a lesser degree.” This is an academic’s way of saying the more officers have trained (rehearsed), and the more automated (instinctive, reflexive, subconscious) their skills, the less their performance degrades in high-stress situations.

The researchers go on to cite a wide range of training techniques that can improve performance during high-stress incidents including spaced practice, providing appropriate instructor feedback and scenario-based training. Based on my experience as a firearm instructor, defensive tactics instructor and use-of-force instructor, scenario-based training is the best law enforcement training for high-stress encounters.

Unfortunately, according to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the average police officer in the U.S. receives 58 hours of firearms training during academy training and just over 2 hours of training per year thereafter. Some get more, but a significant number of officers nationwide get less. This is completely inadequate for doing anything other than hoping to maintain a basic level of competency.

Ask yourself this: How many officers in your department passed the basic academy qualification yet struggle to pass the department qualification? If your department has officers who struggle to pass the qualification, then your department’s training is inadequate. Qualification is a test of minimum standards, and your officers pass that minimum standard in the academy. At a bare minimum, if your training program isn’t maintaining that minimum standard, then your department training is deficient. Qualification should never be confused with training.

Marksmanship is a critical skill for law enforcement officers, but firearms training can be costly and time-consuming. It requires travel time to ranges, ammunition, targets, staple guns, staples and other range equipment. And today, with departments working short-staffed and struggling to find a pool of quality recruits, law enforcement officers have demanding schedules and limited time for training. This can make it difficult to schedule training sessions and provide enough time for officers to develop their skills.

Today’s simulators allow officers to practice their marksmanship skills so they can develop reflexive and subconscious skills to help them perform more effectively under stress. They also include a variety of scenarios that can be customized to meet the specific needs of the department or the individual officer, thereby allowing officers to develop their skills, improve decision-making under stress, and develop competence and confidence. Even better, officers can practice their skills, improve their performance, and increase training time due to the 24/7 availability of the simulator.

De-escalation training

“Relatives say a man who was shot and killed by officers last month was struggling with mental health issues and he didn’t deserve to die this way. The family says police could have done more to de-escalate the situation.” How often in the past 10 years have you heard a similar media report?

De-escalation skills are crucial for officers to ensure safe outcomes during high-pressure situations. Officers who have the knowledge, skills and ability to de-escalate a situation can make the difference between a safe and peaceful outcome or a potentially hazardous or fatal conclusion. The challenge is that effective de-escalation training cannot be accomplished through traditional classroom lectures and actor-based exercises alone. Departments and instructors need to find new and innovative ways to address these challenges.

The challenge starts with new officers who may have limited life experiences or encounters with people in crisis mode. They may lack the gift of the gab, or they may have never been in situations where they needed to defuse and de-escalate another person. In their new role as law enforcement officers, they are going to find themselves in difficult, dangerous and tense situations. In many cases, the right words, spoken in the right manner, can either calm a situation or gain compliance. This is where verbal and non-verbal communication skills come into play.

Fortunately, the same simulators we use for firearms and use-of-force decision-making can be used to improve de-escalation training. Training simulators provide an immersive and realistic environment that accurately simulates the stress and pressure of real-world situations. They allow officers to practice in a safe and controlled environment, where they can experience a range of scenarios and receive immediate feedback on their responses.

Remember: de-escalation is a desired outcome or result. It is not a specific technique or tactic. An officer’s communication skills are not the be-all and end-all of the de-escalation process. When needed, physical action may be an essential part of de-escalation. Sometimes reasonable force is the only acceptable solution to “de-escalate” a situation. Consider the example of an active shooter. Officers enter an active shooter situation where a gunman is actively taking innocent lives. The only way to “de-escalate” that situation might be to eliminate the continued threat. This is where training simulators have a distinct advantage over other training methods.

Simulators can provide officers with a huge library of scenarios where they must quickly assess the scene and situation and use their skills to de-escalate and defuse the situation even during incidents where tempers flare. These scenarios prepare officers to smoothly move among de-escalation techniques and communication tactics, then transition into force options if de-escalation proves impossible. This allows for officers to practice their skills while making split-second decisions and transitioning between skills. These are complex skills officers are unlikely to learn sitting through a seminar or doing a few roleplaying activities with instructors.

Training officers for reality

Solutions like training simulators place officers in immersive scenarios that increase training realism, heighten officer awareness, improve officer de-escalation skills, and train proper use-of-force decision-making and response. De-escalation scenarios can work on an officer’s ability to “talk down” a potentially violent suspect resulting in greatly enhanced officer and community safety. Whether training marksmanship skills, decision-making skills, de-escalation skills, or any combination, training simulators can help instructors provide objective feedback on officer performance while preparing them to deal with stressful street encounters in the future.