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High-tech training is not always the solution for a human problem

Choose a training platform that addresses the need to develop split-second decision-making skills amid rapidly changing variables

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VirTra can help agencies enhance training, save time and money, provide court-defensible training, promote transparency and avoid the risks often associated with scenario-based approaches.


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By Mike Knetzger for Police1 BrandFocus

Calls for law enforcement reform are louder than they have ever been. The public demands more transparency, better training and improved de-escalation skills. Effective reality-based training is a powerful approach to improve these areas. How the reality-based training is carried out will improve outcomes.

Components of successful reality-based training include realism, role players, facsimile equipment, non-lethal firearms and projectiles, protective gear, instructors or training officers, facilities, as well as adequate time to carry out scenarios.

A common method of reality-based training is scenario-based training. This is an effective approach, but some forms require adequate time, personnel and funding, as well as safety gear to help prevent injury. Unfortunately, injuries to role players, officers and even civilian participants have occurred. (Nealigh, 2017). In addition, role players must follow scripts exactly or risk an unintended response from participants, creating a certainty that doesn’t reflect the unpredictable real-world situations officers must be prepared for.

Two types of technology have helped advance reality-based training: virtual reality and interactive video simulation. Here, we examine and compare the two:


Virtual reality training uses goggles that participants wear, providing a “wow” factor when participants interact in a three-dimensional world. But the VR digital or animated characters promote a video-game feel, which is unlike the real world, and VR participants must stay within a pre-determined physical training perimeter. Stepping outside the perimeter can interrupt the training or, in some cases, pose a hazard, such as running into walls or objects.

VR headsets or googles have also been attributed to vertigo or motion sickness among participants, which will quickly bring training to an end. Although a VR system may be a viable option, it lacks the real-world feel and skill-building training that high-quality simulators offer.


No training methods can exactly recreate the real world. However, a high-quality simulation training system like VirTra can help replicate the real world to the greatest extent possible, enhancing the value of the training while also reducing the risk of injury to participants.

Simulation training does not require role players or special safety equipment, reducing overall costs. Participants are permitted to use their personal weapons, once outfitted in drop-in laser recoil kits, which provide a more realistic experience and allow skill transfer to the field. In the open simulated environment, participants are able to experience the realistic look and feel of the training scenarios, free of intrusive googles and video game-style animation. The less artificial the training, the more likely participants will connect their training experiences on the job.

VirTra’s immersive simulation training system contains a robust library of real-world scenarios that are displayed in high resolution to participants who face up to five screens within a 300-degree immersive training area. This immersive training area requires participants to be situationally aware of what is occurring in front of, behind and within their peripheral vision, consistent with reality.

Real actors play out the scenarios, which eliminates the video-game feeling and immerses the participant in the current moment. Each scenario contains a wide variety of branching options, which allows instructors to influence desired participant behaviors and outcomes. The same scenario may end in compliance the first time and an application of force the next.


The benefits of simulation training are supported by empirical research in the field of psychology and consistent with kinesics, or hands-on learning, often used in law enforcement training. From a psychological perspective, simulation training assists participants with recognizing patterns and teaches or helps promote desired responses.

The research further supports positive outcomes among experienced and novice officers. Davies (2015) discovered that simulation helps recruits unconsciously build a mental reference library for real-world scenarios.

Similarly, the VirTra simulator can help promote pattern recognition for better decision-making. The real-world scenarios encountered in the simulator allow participants to engage in incidents that are familiar or typical in the field. These simulated experiences can help participants size up situations, make appropriate judgments and later apply them in the field (Klein, 2017).

When participants engage in less-than-desirable decisions or actions during training, the VirTra simulator allows for a do-over to correct behavior and promote more desirable outcomes in the safety of the training space, helping officers avoid similar errors or mistakes in the field.


People learn by doing, and the VirTra simulator allows for a hands-on or kinesthetic experience, requiring officers to interact with and apply a wide range of hands-on skills, from professional communications and de-escalation to decisions across the entire spectrum of force (e.g., less lethal to lethal).

Participants can be provided with additional simulator-ready weapons, including electronic control devices, pepper spray, batons and firearms. When a force decision is made or if they are faced with a lethal threat, the VirTra environment allows participants to move quickly to simulated cover, or create distance, while applying force.

The results of their force application are displayed on the screen, along with appropriate role player reaction. If the force option fails, participants can be required to transition to a different option, which improves decision-making and increases familiarity (e.g., muscle memory) with equipment location and access from their duty belt or outer vest carrier equipment.


Agencies that fail to provide their officers with realistic, hands-on, decision-making training expose themselves to significant civil liability (Popow v. Margate¹, 1979; Zuchel v. Denver², 1993).

VirTra can offer court-defensible training and help agencies transparently demonstrate to community leaders and citizens that they are properly preparing their officers. The same community leaders, citizens and activists can also partake in the VirTra experience and help them realize what it is like to walk in the shoes of those who protect and serve their communities. In some instances, community activists have had their perspectives changed by participating in simulation training.

VirTra can help agencies enhance training, save time and money, provide court-defensible training, promote transparency and avoid the risks often associated with scenario-based approaches.

Visit VirTra for more information.

Read Next: How simulation training offers a more true-to-life experience for learning that sticks

About the Author

Michael Knetzger, Ph.D, is a 28-year law enforcement veteran, currently a sergeant with the Green Bay Police Department in Wisconsin. He is also a unified tactical trainer, subject matter expert and expert witness, law enforcement consultant, published author of six books and a freelance writer.



  1. Popow v. Margate (1979), police in a foot pursuit shot at the suspect, but killed an innocent bystander. The agency had not offered any training related to low light conditions, moving targets, no decision-making shooting, and the court described the agency training as grossly inadequate.
  2. Zuchel v. Denver (1993), a police officer mistakenly shot a suspect who they confused a knife for a fingernail clipper. The only decision-making training offered by the agency was via a lecture and film.