On a Friday morning in mid-February, Springtown police officer Leia Beavers strapped on a virtual reality headset that looked a little too big on her small frame.

Beavers, who joined Springtown Police Department in December after graduating from the police academy, was inspired by her family to pursue a law enforcement career. She hopes to someday follow in her father’s footsteps to become an investigator and has enjoyed meeting people in Springtown.  

Beavers didn’t train using virtual reality in the academy, and she thinks it is helpful. Even though she was having technical issues with the system — things the department heads will have to work on — she described the experience as a positive one.

“I feel like it will be a good training experience for everybody,” Beavers said.

Springtown Police Department received funding for the new training system in last year’s city budget, which didn’t include the equipment at first; it was added after city leaders realized Springtown would have more revenue than was previously projected.

The system, from the company Apex Officer, allows Springtown police to train for a variety of potential calls — including traffic stops, domestic violence, fights at school and active shooter situations — from a safe distance. The people they interact with in the virtual reality world can be drunk or otherwise intoxicated, experiencing a mental health crisis or armed and dangerous. Given these scenarios in several different scenes, officers are tasked with exploring how best to handle these situations so they can be more prepared outside the virtual world.

“Pretty much anything you can do in real life, you can do in this,” Deputy Chief Jamie Oliver said.

The system also comes with a virtual firing range which allows the department to save money on ammunition and sharpen officers’ shooting skills, Oliver said.

The virtual program is expected to be part of regular training for Springtown officers, according to the deputy chief. After officers run through the scenarios, they will debrief and get feedback on how they handled the situation.

“This is just to give them more hands-on training so that when they do witness scenarios that we train in, hopefully they have a little bit more knowledge, more understanding, can handle it better, quicker, be more proficient doing any kind of incident,” Oliver said.

The scenarios included in the virtual training may be ones the officers have never handled before and will allow them to test their skills in new areas while also receiving feedback, school resource officer Bobby Martinez said. For officers fresh out of the academy, Martinez said this program lets them tackle scenarios in a controlled environment so “they’re not going to be on the street dealing with it for the first time.”

“You have to be confident in everything you do and be aware of everything you do as well within the guidelines of the law,” Martinez said about police work.

As a newer officer, training is very important to Beavers. She wants to better understand how to do her job and work to de-escalate interactions with the public.

“That’s what we want to do more than actually being physical — until we have to,” Beavers said.

In fact, Oliver said using the training system to reduce tensions when officers respond to calls is exactly what is intended.

“That’s the whole point of this is really to help with the de-escalation, especially into the mental (health) calls, stuff like that, or . . . domestics, trying to learn how to calm people down, get them relaxed and not have to use any type of force,” he said.

For example, one of the training scenarios involves a person who threatens to take their own life with a knife, and the goal is for officers to get the person to drop the knife and then get them help, Oliver said.

“Because you can’t really go hands-on, it makes you have to use your words,” school resource officer Shane Brown said about the virtual reality training.

Being able to communicate is especially important for school resource officers like Brown and Martinez, whose jobs sometimes involve talking with children. The virtual reality training includes a school setting for officers to practice handling situations that may arise at campuses, even as extreme as a shooting.

School resource officers receive regular active shooter training, but having this virtual system will allow for even more practice and instruction, Martinez said.

“We can do it anytime we want,” he said. “If you look at statistics, we have to be able to respond to those situations.”

Using the virtual reality system only requires two officers — one to wear the headset and interact with the scenario and the other to control the proceedings, Brown said. Conversely, training for situations using live actors requires multiple people and finding a physical location. 

“It just makes it easier,” Brown said. “And every scenario is readily available. You can go anywhere from a school to a nightclub to the traffic stop, so it just gives you a variety of choices without having to go to that location to simulate those scenarios.”

Brown has been on the police force in Springtown for a handful of years. While he said the virtual simulator can help newer officers get the hang of their jobs, it can also be useful to people like him who have some experience.

“You can always get better,” Brown said. “This is one of those jobs that every day is something different. Every time you go out there, you’re going to get something, have to deal with a different situation, so the (more) you can train, the better officer you’ll be.”

Officer Caegan Long, who joined the department in September, volunteered to test out the virtual training program on one of his days off in February. Like other officers, Long was looking forward to trying out various scenarios and getting feedback on how he could improve.

“An officer can never train enough,” Long said.

This article was originally published by Madelyn Edwards for Tri Country Reporter. Read the original article here.