- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2019

EDGEWOOD, Md. — Gunfire erupts inside the movie theater. Teenagers scream as they spill into of the foyer. Armed with a modified police-issued handgun, the newspaper reporter enters the fray and begins the hunt for the shooter.

Racing through hallways past bleeding bystanders, the reporter goes through an exit door into a dark parking lot. The shooter, a ratty-looking teenager in camouflage, appears and — bang! bang! bang! — guns down the reporter. A buzzer in the reporter’s pants pocket tells him he’s dead.

The virtual reality training simulation is over.

Police departments across the country increasingly are turning to simulators as training tools to replicate real-world scenarios without real-world costs. Virtual reality simulations can be run anytime day or night, don’t require hiring actors or building/renting sets, and save ammunition, which can rack up hefty costs in training activities.

Technological advances such as cellphone video and body camera footage have placed officers under more scrutiny over decisions on when to draw and fire their weapons, and police agencies are using technology to hone crisis-management skills, especially with regard to the use of lethal force.



In a secure facility north of Baltimore, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office has been using a state-of-the-art simulator for nearly 18 months.

The VirTra V-300 judgmental training simulator sits in an open space at the Southern Precinct station large enough to accommodate all of its equipment. It includes an elevated stage that is nearly surrounded by five 12½-by-7-foot movie screens and directional speakers, which provide a 300-degree interactive experience. Different scenarios are controlled by a trainer at a nearby computer console.

Sheriff’s Maj. Daniel Galbraith proudly notes that the sheriff’s office paid $350,000 for its VirTra V-300 with forfeited assets from convicted drug dealers, not taxpayer funds.

Harford County has the only VirTra simulator in Maryland. Officials purchased it in late 2017 after a string of deadly mass shootings raised concerns about police forces’ ability to handle extreme incidents.

“Anytime you practice, you’ll be better at what you do,” Maj. Galbraith said. “Our goal is to make sure we equip deputies to be the very best men and women that they can be.”

The county’s VirTra has been in nearly constant use, said Cpl. Greg Young, one of the sheriff’s office’s six simulator trainers. More than 300 deputies, police recruits, members of SWAT teams and criminal justice clubs, state prosecutors and elected officials have undertaken training in the simulator, he said, and some judges are scheduled for sessions.

Cpl. Young’s 24 years of experience, which includes commanding SWAT units and teaching marksmanship and tactics, come into play when he sits at the VirTra control panel to guide training sessions. He can access more than 300 scenarios, including school shootings with hostages, traffic stops gone bad, potential suicides — even a case of a man threatening to throw a baby off a bridge.

The prerecorded scenes play out on the five movie screens. They feature actors who curse, spit and bleed fake blood. The scenarios can unfold with 10 to 15 different outcomes, which Cpl. Young controls based on a trainee’s responses.

“If you want to gauge an officer’s split-second reactions or their ability to de-escalate a tense situation, this is about as real as it gets,” he said.

The reality extends to weaponry. Harford County issues the Glock Model 22 to its law enforcement agencies. The handgun uses .40-caliber Smith & Wesson rounds that can cost 50 cents apiece, but for the simulator, it is modified to fire laser pulses with lifelike recoil provided by CO2 cartridges.

The VirTra also can accommodate laser-equipped rifles and less-lethal weapons such as pepper spray and Tasers.

What’s more, simulator training sessions are recorded to allow trainers to review and explain, frame by frame, poorly executed shots or other mistakes. When trainees are shot in a scenario, an electric jolt lets them know they have been hit.

“We can break a scenario down to that split second where a life-or-death decision is made,” Cpl. Young said.

Virtual reality simulators are used to complement, not replace, other police training tools such as obstacle courses and firing ranges.

Bob Ferris, CEO of Arizona-based VirTra Inc., emphasized the importance of repeating training moves and tactics — a key element of developing “muscle memory” that can help an officer perform a series of actions quickly and effectively.

“Currently, the instructors carefully monitor the body language, content and tone of trainees as they practice de-escalation techniques that are part human-psychology and part street smarts,” said Mr. Ferris, whose company’s simulators are used by several federal agencies and in 40 states and 29 countries.

Maj. Galbraith said the focus now is on training the brain to be more aware during high-stress situations in immersive simulations.

Lt. Mark Fox is a 22-year veteran in the sheriff’s office. He enters the simulator with his hand on the firearm in his holster.

A 911 call crackles over the speakers: “Multiple shots fired … responding units proceed to … (garbled noise).” The movie screens transport Lt. Fox to the scene of a school shooting. A teen covered in blood pleads for help. Gunfire erupts, and Lt. Fox returns fire, killing the shooter.

“You train here to make mistakes that you hopefully don’t make outside,” he said after the two-minute simulation ended.

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