How Local Law Enforcement Can Collaborate to Acquire Use of Force Training Simulators

When he first saw a modern, five-screen, police use of force training simulator in operation at the 2016 FBI National Academy Associates annual conference in July 2016, Deputy Chief Kenneth Cox of the St. Louis County (Missouri) Police Department was quickly convinced.

"My impression was that need to get one," said Cox, a 2008 graduate of the FBI Academy, Session 232. "It's not only for active shooter situations like Columbine – that's been on the radar for years – but it's also for de-escalation training."

The system – a totally interactive system from VirTra, Inc. that displays realistic video simulations on five large screens surrounding the officers who are being trained – allows participants to be completely immersed in multi-sensory experiences in real-time crime situations which feature human actors. A nearby training officer runs the computer-driven simulations, and can control how they unfold and conclude, from shots being fired to de-escalation of a dangerous situation with a suspect in police custody without any violence. The video scenarios can be replayed or changed at a moment's notice for all officers using the system.

Seeing it in use at the 2016 FBINAA conference , which was held in St. Louis County, allowed him to stand inside the simulator and try it out himself that same day. His time in the simulator left Cox with a personal mission to figure out how his department and officers could get one to improve their own training.

The realism of the experience in replicating what real police officers experience on the street in high-stress crime situations is what convinced him that the system would be beneficial to officers in his department. After trying it himself, he stood by and watched other FBINAA members as they went through video simulations using the system.

"When I watched other officers go through the simulator, I saw them – veteran officers – using very good tactics, but they were sweating" from the stress and realism of what they were experiencing. "I thought, my goodness, if it's that realistic in this big auditorium, then that's what we need. You could tell it was intense for them."

But getting a simulator wasn't in his department's budget at that point, so Cox left the conference and began talking about his experience with other police chiefs and officers in St. Louis County in the ensuing months. The county has 56 different police departments inside its borders and none of them could afford to buy such a system on their own, he said.

Other officers from around the county were also at the 2016 conference, which was sponsored by the Eastern District of Missouri Chapter of the FBINAA and featured Cox as its president and chairman that year. Many of those officers also saw the five-screen simulator and went through their own situational events using the system.

"There were lines to try it out," said Cox. "Everybody was very impressed with the multi-screen, very realistic system."

For years, officers throughout St. Louis County have only been able to train with an outdated system that used a single screen and animated images to simulate crimes. That old system is light years from today's multi-screen systems, he said.

After plenty of discussions among county police leaders and officers, the St. Louis Police Foundation, a non-profit group that supports local police departments by raising money for needed projects which aren't funded with tax dollars, was contacted and began brainstorming with local police. The foundation donates funds for police training, programs, technology and related expenses on behalf of the police in the county.

A local anonymous donor heard of the county's desire for the use of force training system and after reviewing several other proposals for other funding needs, volunteered to pay for the high-tech, five-screen training simulator system in its entirety – if the county's police departments would share it among all its members. The anonymous donor provided the money, the St. Louis County Police Department bought the system and it was recently installed at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, which provides training for all officers in the county.

The virtual reality training installed system is fully operational today and officers from the police academy are continuing to test it and gain experience with it before its use is soon expanded, said Cox, who is a 30-year veteran of the St. Louis County Police Department and has served as deputy chief since 2014.

"We had to actually take a wall out in the academy to accommodate it," he said. "We can't wait to start using it for ongoing training so all the officers in this area can train on it."

The St. Louis County experience isn't the only way that communities can collaborate to acquire such systems, according to law enforcement experts.

Alternative Funding Sources

Other options to buy virtual reality training systems include community partnerships where groups of departments and municipalities can apply for neighborhood grants, which usually come from federal and urban development agencies. The grants, which usually total about $10,000 each, can be combined between grant applicants to make larger purchases together to initiate projects, including police simulator training technology.

Arizona and Utah have been involved in creating state programs to buy and install five-screen use of force simulators across their states for intensive training by their own officers.

Federal asset forfeiture programs, where assets and proceeds of criminals involved in federal crimes can be seized and distributed, are also potential sources of funding for such investments, as well as possible special assessments on traffic tickets and other fees and fines, say experts. State attorney generals can also potentially help procure funding for local departments through grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Ensuring that officers and police departments have the right training tools to prepare for their work in their communities is a growing goal across our nation. Providing the best, most accurate realistic police simulator training is something we can all work to achieve to improve protections for the public and our officers as they do their jobs.

Deputy Chief Cox of the St. Louis County Police Department agrees, adding that his department requested that its simulator include a variety of additional non-shooting encounters in its accompanying video scenarios for training in all kinds of situations.

"The police are the ones seeking this out," he said. "We want whatever we can possibly get to prepare our officers for a deadly force encounter or a non-deadly force encounter."