Iowa State University has unveiled a new on-campus simulation module to train criminal justice students and law enforcement in de-escalation tactics and other methods to respond to a variety of scenarios officers face on the job.
Professors and law enforcement experts hope the tool will better prepare future and current members of the profession for responding to the growing mental health crisis in the country.
The VirTra-100 training simulator, a 10-foot-wide screen that projects videos of real-life scenarios, gives officers and students a chance to train their decision-making abilities and prepare for incidents law enforcement personnel encounter every day.
Kyle Burgason, an associate professor of criminal justice at ISU, along with sociology professor David Peters with the ISU Extension and Outreach, used grant funding to purchase the simulator. The professors say it will be used to train criminal justice students and members of the ISU Police Department, as well as other officers from rural police departments in the near future.
Burgason told ISU News that he believes the simulator will help law enforcement with de-escalation tactics to defuse dangerous situations and respond better to mental health crises.
“Mental health and de-escalation are huge now in law enforcement. VirTra-100 has specific curriculum to tackle that, along with an extensive library of other realistic scenarios for experiential learning on verbal commands, use of force and its social intersections,” Burgason said.
The simulator enables officers to interact and engage with individuals in the video undergoing a mental health crisis by offering several options for how to de-escalate the crisis or respond to a similarly dangerous situation. Based on the officer’s decision, the situation can have a different outcome.
ISU Police Chief Michael Newton said the tool has already been useful for his officers. “The more training we can do on de-escalation, the better off we are. This is just another tool we can use to put officers through real-life-like situations and hopefully learn and develop new skills.”
Newton said that while ISU officers’ traditional training includes role-playing exercises of various common scenarios, the simulator offers a unique advantage, as it allows officers to run through more scenarios per session with less preparation time.
Newton explained that the scenarios still feel realistic even though they are projected on a two-dimensional screen.
“You immediately feel like you’re really there in the situation. You feel your heart rate increase, your respiration increase. Some officers have tunnel vision,” he said.
The police chief added that the training allows officers to evaluate their physiological response to situations so they can then learn to regulate their physical and emotional reactions and prevent a situation from escalating.
Burgason hopes that using the simulator will provide an experiential approach to learning for criminal justice students so they can have a practical understanding of the use-of-force continuum, from verbal tactics to lethal force. It can also improve communication skills.
“One of the most important things a lot of new recruits don’t know is how valuable written communication is for law enforcement,” Burgason said. “You have to turn police reports over to a detective to help solve a case, and you have to turn it in as evidence used in court.”
ISU sociology professor David Peters said the plan for the future is to move the simulator to a larger space so the college can host symposiums for training rural law enforcement agencies to handle the growing mental health crisis.
“There’s a huge mental health care shortage in rural areas. People may be hours away from a health care professional who can help, so police departments usually have to stabilize the situation and transport that individual an hour, hour and a half, sometimes two hours to a facility that can do an evaluation and help them address an issue,” Peters said.
The use of high-tech simulation training by law enforcement agencies is a growing trend. Agencies across the country, from Wisconsin to Florida, are using simulators for de-escalation and firearms training.