One minute, Kodiak’s police chief was at an indoor law enforcement conference in Chicago, and the next moment, he was standing outside a gas station, helping a person who was suffering from a mental health crisis.
Chief Tim Putney had changed locations without actually going anywhere. Instead, he was trying out a virtual reality simulator designed to train police officers.
He had donned a backpack containing a computer, as well as a duty belt equipped with the tools officers typically carry while on patrol. Once in the virtual world, he observed the situation, contacted a caregiver to pick up the person, walked into the store and even ducked his head to enter the police car.
“It felt very real,” Putney said.
The scenario, rendered using realistic animation, is one of many offered by the Apex Officer Training System. The Kodiak City Council voted at a regular meeting on Thursday to authorize the purchase of the interactive virtual reality training simulation system for $62,500, upgrading the police department from 2D and in-person training.
The department’s old 2D training software became unusable a year ago, so it reverted to in-person training, which can be costly and take months to organize. After some consideration, the department decided it would be less expensive to invest in a new VR system rather than upgrade the old system.
“The training environment is forgiving and allows for learning to occur,” said City Manager Mike Tvenge about the VR simulator. “When events unfold in real life, there is no ‘do-over’ and mistakes can be devastating for the department and the community.”
The new system will allow officers to train effectively and frequently so mistakes are less likely to occur in real situations.
“A VR system allows an officer to be immersed in a training environment and is commonly used for de-escalation training and use-of-force decision-making,” Tvenge said.
Officers will be able to practice high-risk scenarios and hone skills such as questioning a witness, investigating a traffic incident, searching for evidence and clearing a building.
Officers can also use the system to learn about CPR and first aid, or deal with someone who has mental illness. They might need to safely implement crowd control measures, investigate a missing person case, conduct crisis intervention or deal with domestic violence scenarios and gang awareness. The list of possibilities, locations, times of day, suspects and victims is extensive.
“It comes with 20 different environments — everything from schools, shopping malls and stores to alleyways and open fields,” Putney said.
Tvenge said the virtual reality scenarios can also help officers learn how to handle less likely scenarios such as mass shootings or hostage situations.
“Honing one’s skills in sometimes split-second decision-making is crucial in pressure situations,” Tvenge said. “The ability to have this situational training tool available for all law enforcement staff is meant to protect our public and officers during common and uncommon encounters. This will be beneficial to both new and veteran officers.”
Putney said KPD’s sergeants will serve as the trainers. They will set up training monthly or more frequently when officers are on a slow shift.
He said that if officers practice less common scenarios 100 times a year, they can be better equipped for an infrequent, risky situation as it unfolds in real life.
“Your body can't go where your mind hasn't been,” he said. “If this is something you've seen before ... you will be able to handle it better.”
Tvenge noted that the new training system will be more cost-effective and easier to conduct than traditional training methods, which involved months of detailed planning, the use of volunteers as actors and great effort to prepare the scenarios, secure locations and pay officers overtime.