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Why traditional learning methodologies fall short in policing, and how a simulator can help

Classroom lectures simply can’t replicate the real-world conditions in which officers must make split-second decisions

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Simulator training provides an immersive, real-time experience that complements live-fire training to enhance an officer’s skill set, improve marksmanship, test decision-making and build confidence.


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By Dale Stockton, P1 Contributor

There are many challenges involved in the training of police officers, but one of the biggest is the sheer unpredictability of the situations they will face. Unlike most jobs, the situational and environmental variables of police work are countless, information is often limited or outright wrong, and officers are dealing with human beings under stress.

All of these factors contribute greatly to the uncertainty that officers must learn to work through if they’re going to be successful, whether handling a panicked parent or confronting a robbery suspect.

Traditional learning methodology, especially classroom lecture, is incapable of properly preparing officers to handle field situations because it cannot duplicate or effectively convey the experience of working through a rapidly unfolding and stressful situation. A more viable approach is to immerse the student in scenario-based situations that mirror what they will face on the street.

Academy trainers realized this long ago and began using role-play exercises – a big step forward, but limited in effectiveness for a variety of reasons, including logistics, lack of qualified role players and limited debrief capability.

A better approach is to use scenario-based simulator training. Recent technological advances make it possible to conduct very effective training that provides realistic exposure and experience while also allowing for meaningful and constructive follow-up. This approach to training improves field capabilities because trainees actually learn how to work through situations, establishing thought processes and muscle memory that can improve their performance in the field.

Considerations for Establishing a Simulation Program

It’s important to stress that simulator training is not a substitute for live-fire training on a range. However, it’s very complementary to range training and can enhance an officer’s skill set, improve marksmanship and build confidence as a cost-effective and proven training asset.

Today’s simulators are capable of doing so much more than providing a shoot/don’t shoot scenario because they build decision-making skills that draw on well-honed judgment processes. Good judgment is about being aware of and understanding the environment, then taking action based on the situation as it evolves. This is known as adaptive decision-making, and it is the foundation for recognizing a threat, taking the appropriate action and effectively transitioning to an optional course of action when necessary.

How Simulators Can Improve De-escalation Training

The concept of de-escalation has understandably become a common component in current use-of-force training. Although some officers have a natural gift for bringing calm to a situation, de-escalation is challenging for many, especially under stress and when confronted with rapidly unfolding events. This is where simulator training can provide a degree of stress inoculation that allows an officer to function more effectively and to respond rather than impulsively react.

While law enforcement should attempt to de-escalate where appropriate, it’s equally important that officers have the skill to immediately escalate their actions, including the use of deadly force, when warranted. Officers must be able to recognize quickly what force options are appropriate for different circumstances. Sadly, some officers have lost their lives when they hesitated unnecessarily or engaged in an activity like reporting a situation via radio rather than actively engaging.

De-escalation is not a new concept. The most famous iteration was from Dr. George Thompson, the author of “Verbal Judo,” who, before he died in 2011, had been teaching it to cops since the 1980s. As law enforcement has progressed, we realize if we want to do it right, de-escalation cannot be taught just sitting in a classroom. It requires training methodology that involves practical application. Use of integrated and immersive simulation training builds on experience and ingrains the ability to fluidly adapt because officers can experience the ramifications of their actions.

Important Learning Factors: Realism and Review

Scenario-based simulation can provide a very effective learning environment because officers can go through realistic experiences and then learn from a review of their actions. However, this doesn’t just happen – it has to be part of the overall effort and is dependent on both the simulator system and the instructor to ensure maximum effect.

In terms of the equipment, video review is powerful, and the trainee should be able to see his or her actions in tandem with the scenario as it was unfolding. This is important, and it allows an instructor to coach more effectively by asking open-ended questions such as, “What were you aware of at this point in the call?” and “What did you see, what did you hear?”

These should be followed with questions like, “What would you do differently and why?” This type of debrief is much more effective than merely replaying the scenario and pointing out right and wrong actions, because trainees become much more aware of the decision-making process. Debriefs should occur promptly, either at the time of the performance or in a classroom environment a short time later.

Having the trainee write a report on the incident can be an effective learning tool because it utilizes a different part of the brain in documenting the experience. It’s also complementary to the questions that were asked in the debrief about what the trainee was aware of and what their decisions were based on.

Unfortunately, many police situations have been won in the field but lost in the courtroom due to inadequate documentation of an officer’s actions. Building awareness of how to properly document a critical incident and reinforcing the accountability for actions is a significant value-add to simulator training.

Simulator Capabilities

Like police duty guns, not all simulators are created equal. Cheaper is not better. Due diligence is required to ensure that the features are conducive to enhanced decision-making, increased confidence and improved performance. These are the key factors to having officers who are not only safer in the field, but less likely to make a critical error. In other words, more officers will make it home and fewer officers will get themselves or their agencies in trouble.

Effective reality-based training requires that the environment be as realistic as possible. A screen that surrounds the trainee, rather than presented on a single screen like viewing a movie, is much more effective because it can duplicate the field of view experienced in real life.

Other environmental factors, such as the quality of the audio, the resolution of the video, the ability to provide sensory stimulation, realistic weaponry and the option of including three-dimensional objects like a simulated wall or car fender are important.

Consideration should also be given to having a fourth-dimension factor of time by adding a role player who can move in and out of the scenario and thus simulate a hostage or bystander who is in the field of fire. The props and role player can add context and difficulty, provide challenges for the trainee to overcome and provide a greater level of training immersion. Note that the inclusion of live subjects in the described manner would be impossible in a live-fire range situation due to safety concerns.


Simulators, such as those offered by VirTra, are a powerful training tool that allows agencies to accomplish numerous types of training with a single system. Weapons handling, judgmental use of force and de-escalation can all be improved through the use of a simulator, combined with effective debriefing and coaching.

An agency can also enhance a specific skill or ability of a trainee, conduct administrative tests, introduce new policies, recertify a particular capability or design custom scenarios to focus on a particular type of situation. Properly utilized, simulators can improve overall operational capability, lessen liability and, most importantly, save the lives and careers of those who serve.

About the author

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and investigations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He is a graduate of the 201st FBI National Academy and holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of California, Irvine. He has served as a Commissioner for California POST, the agency responsible for all California policing standards and training. Dale is the former editor-in-chief of Law Officer Magazine and is the founder of Below 100.