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How this PD uses simulation training to boost realism and offer flexibility

Garden City PD in Georgia chose VirTra so officers could build decision-making skills and marksmanship without worrying about scheduling

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Garden City PD officer takes aim using the VirTra simulator

Look for a training system that provides realism and versatility to ensure that officers are learning the right lessons to prepare them for safety and de-escalation on the street.

Garden City PD/David Dess

Sponsored by VirTra

By Rachel Zoch, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

When Sgt. David Dess took over the training program for the Garden City PD in Georgia, he wanted a solution that would allow more flexibility and realism than simple range time and marksmanship drills.

“Our annual training every year we would just go out to the range, we would do our annual certification, and then we had range days where the officers would come out and do some practicing,” he said.

Dess and agency leaders felt that this static training, using flat silhouette targets, wasn’t sufficient to prepare officers for the dynamic situations they face every day in the field. The department had adopted some scenario-based training sessions using simunition rounds, but these efforts were time- and resource-intensive, plus the simunition rounds put officers at risk of injury.

Dess and the department chose VirTra simulation training for its realistic scenarios using actors projected life-size onto one or more screens for a more immersive experience.

“When we’re doing these shoot/no shoot scenarios, it’s not a silhouette,” he said. “It’s an actual person on a video in front of you, so you have to address what it is. It’s not just a piece of paper that you’re looking at, it’s a person. So how will we respond to this person? Is this person a threat to us?”

This complexity plays a key role in preparing officers for rapidly unfolding situations that require swift analysis and decision-making, Dess says. That’s extremely beneficial, he adds, especially when police are under added scrutiny nationwide and officers must discern quickly whether the object in someone’s hand is a phone or a weapon.

“The officer has to make that split-second decision, is that a deadly threat to me?” he said. “So having programs that are digital, where we could run our officers constantly through those shoot/no shoot scenarios and the less-lethal options, it builds that mentality and their mindset, OK, I need to look at what the threat is. Is this a lethal threat to me, and how am I going to respond to it? Because the decision has to be made quickly.”


Not only did Dess and the Garden City PD want to train their officers using the kinds of scenarios that they face on a daily basis – they wanted to offer the opportunity to train whenever officers found themselves available. The department’s VirTra V-100 simulator, set up in a dedicated room at the station, is available to officers 24/7.

“If they have a lull in their shift and want to go to the office and jump on the simulator, they’re able to do that on their own time,” he said. “They don’t have to wait for a scheduled training evolution to come out.”

Garden City PD adopted its VirTra V-100 single-screen simulator in January. Officers, especially new recruits, can practice and refresh their de-escalation skills with scenarios that echo common calls for service, such as domestic violence or someone in a mental health crisis.

“It’s difficult to schedule that kind of training on a constant basis,” said Dess. “So with this simulator, we’re able to get those officers in at the very beginning of their training and get them running through the scenario so they could see what they may or may not face out on the street.”


The department has already reaped real-world benefits, he adds, helping officers prepare for and pass a new marksmanship course required by the state.

With VirTra’s help, GCPD was able to recreate the new Georgia Pistol Qualification Course on the simulator to provide added practice time for both seasoned officers and new recruits. After two hours of simulator practice, two cadets who had been struggling passed the qualification test the next day.

“Actual live range time isn’t always available, and we don’t want that the first time they’re out there trying to shoot this new course is when they’re out there trying to qualify,” said Dess. “Had it not been for that VirTra system, our officers that were in the academy as cadets at the time may not have made it through the academy.”

The decision-making and de-escalation skills officers have been building through simulation training have also borne fruit in the field. Although Dess acknowledges that it’s not realistic to try to train for every situation, he says officers were able to resolve an attempted carjacking incident without serious injury thanks to their recent scenario-based training.

“The suspect was taken into custody and got the treatment needed because he was in mental crisis,” said Dess. “When we use the VirTra system, it has mental crisis calls built into it, so the officers understood that this individual was in mental crisis. They de-escalated by backing away, and they used tactics of call-outs and trying to get him out of the vehicle without resorting to deadly force.”


It’s a well-known idea in sports that you play the way you practiced. That means doing it the wrong way on the practice field can create “training scars” that yield poor performance during a game. The same is true for any training, and poorly designed and executed training often causes more harm than good.

The realism and variability of the VirTra training platform help officers avoid learning bad habits, says Dess. Multiple branches for each scenario in the curriculum, which can be changed by the trainer depending on the trainees’ responses, create unpredictable outcomes that keep learners on their toes.

“It’s not a cookie cutter,” he said. “They go in there and do a scenario one time, and then when they come in and see the image on the screen, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve done this already. I know what’s going to happen.’ No, you don’t. Because we could change it. There’s several different options that we could go to.”

Dess also says the scenarios test different levels of conflict to help officers practice de-escalation.

“I think it’s beneficial for officers that not all scenarios that we run are shoot/no shoot,” he said. “They have the option and the discretion of being able to choose a less-lethal option if it’s available to them, and if they deploy a less-lethal option, the VirTra program picks that up and responds accordingly.”

GCPD incorporates simulated weapons – including Glocks, rifles, TASERs and pepper spray – into its training so that officers literally get a feel for it. Dess says the VirTra sim weapons, which use laser tracking, are impressive.

“When we’re deploying the OC, you could actually draw your name on the screen if you wanted to. It’s capturing the laser that you’re deploying on the screen,” he said. “You can’t see it, obviously, but when you’re deploying it from the device, the camera picks it up on the screen.”

They are also able to simulate flashlights at different intensities to reflect the variety of lights carried by individual officers.

One important but often overlooked point of realism that Dess especially appreciates is that the VirTra sim weapons are wireless, giving officers free range of motion.

“A lot of systems out there require your weapon system to be tethered with the CO2 cord,” he said. “The VirTra system is completely cord-free, where the cartridges are charged up at the loading station. You could do reloads with that, and it’s just like shooting an actual Glock. The simulated recoil is about as close to shooting an actual Glock as it can be.”

He says that maneuverability means officers can do what they should actually be doing in the field.

“If you start getting engaged by a threat, we don’t want officers to get into the mindset that, ‘I’m stuck in this spot because I’m tethered to something,’” he said. “No, we want you to move and get cover, get behind something that’s going to keep you safe, and we’re able to do that with the system.”


With the VirTra simulation training system, the Garden City PD training program has gained realism and versatility that makes a difference every day. Through serious training with realistic but inert weapons and human actors whose responses can vary with each engagement, trainees and officers build muscle memory and engage critical thinking skills for better decision-making in the moment.

“The better we train our officers, especially in the climate that we’re in today, it’s just better for our communities from a safety standpoint,” said Dess. “We have to make sure that our folks are prepared to pretty much respond to any kind of crisis at any point in time, and it’s just difficult to train for all of those scenarios.”

But a virtual training system means you can design your own crisis, he adds. Should a particular challenge arise, or the department want to get ahead of an emerging trend, they can create that scenario on the VirTra system to better prepare.

“We want to make sure that all the officers have all of the tools, which we do – they’ve got the car, they’ve got the gun,” said Dess. “But one of the things we can’t always prepare them for is what they’re going to face on the street. So, being able to implement that on a virtual platform is going to be beneficial for our agency.”

For more information, visit VirTra.

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Rachel Zoch is a branded content project lead for Lexipol, where she has written about public safety products and issues important to police, fire, EMS and corrections since 2015. A University of Texas journalism graduate, she previously worked the copy desk of a local daily newspaper and served as managing editor of a trade magazine for the multifamily housing industry.