Sonoma County law enforcement use virtual reality to train officers on use of force
Santa Rosa police officers Thomas Collins and Mark Fajardin responded to an active shooter call Tuesday morning.
Entering an office, they saw a man leaning against a cubicle with a stomach wound pleading for help. Nearby gunshots nearby led the officers left around a corner to find another man on his back in a doorway begging for his life.
Over him stood a gunman in a flak jacket. Collins quickly fired a few shots from his Colt AR-15 hitting the assailant in the head. Taking fire from a second shooter on the other side of the room armed with an AK-47-style rifle, Fajarden returned fire with his Glock 17 pistol and took him out.
Then three projection screens went blank and the lights came on as the computer simulation ended.
Detective Stephen Bussell asked the officers to reprise what they saw, and how and why they responded to the situation.
“We train like we fight and we fight like we train,” said Sgt. Robert Reynolds, training manager for the Santa Rosa Police Department. “There’s a lot going on in these simulations; they’re stressful. We want to inoculate our officers to stress here so they have a higher tolerance to stressful situations on the street.”
The $192,000 VirTra V-180 use-of-force simulator, purchased by the SRPD in mid-2016 with federal grant money, has three laser-detecting cameras behind each of the three projection screens covering a 180-degree field of vision. A camera above the screens captures trainees’ movements.
The simulator has more than 100 scenarios requiring officers to make split-second decisions on whether to talk, or use nonlethal or lethal force. The on-screen videos — using actors in actual locations — replicate situations law enforcement across the county have faced, Reynolds said.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office also has purchased a similar use-of-force simulator. That model — the VirTra V-300 — uses five screens covering a 300-degree field of vision providing an immersive experience. The simulator cost $280,000, said spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum.
The interactive training aids were purchased in the wake of high-profile police shootings that sparked protests and a nationwide movement, including the 2013 shooting in Santa Rosa of 13-year-old Andy Lopez and the subsequent establishment of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach in 2015.
Bussell said use-of-force training helps law enforcement take necessary lethal action when they are the target of violence, citing recent events in Dallas and Baton Rouge when police officers were targeted and killed.
Santa Rosa police officers’ training with the VirTra V-180 begins with a 50-minute presentation on case law and statutes explaining the rights and limitations law enforcement have for use of lethal force. But the presentation the six officers sat through Tuesday to begin the exercise started on a somber note. The faces and names of a few dozen police officers killed on the job in California since 2000 appeared in slides before Bussell delved into the department’s use-of-force policy. Reynolds then noted that he knew two of the fallen officers.
The use of force is determined by three primary factors, Bussell said in the presentation: the severity of the crime, the threat of the suspect to the police officer and to the public, and the active resistance of the suspect. Fear alone doesn’t justify force, but when there is a perception of a lethal threat, even if that perceived threat turns out to be a toy gun, force is justified, Bussell said.
Lopez was carrying an airsoft gun that resembled an AK-47 assault rifle at the time he was shot and killed in Roseland by Deputy Erick Gelhaus on Oct. 22, 2013.
The use-of-force simulators are for more than training law enforcement; they allow politicians, media and the public to experience use-of-force situations.
“It was eye-opening,” said Santa Rosa City Council member Jack Tibbetts, who tested the simulator in March. “It became apparent right away it was very difficult. I didn’t know when I should pull the gun or whether I should use a Taser.”
In Tibbetts’ first simulator scenario, he responded to a domestic disturbance where an angry ex-girlfriend shot at her former boyfriend and his new girlfriend with a pistol. Tibbetts was slow on the trigger.
“She shot me,” Tibbetts said. “I think I died in that scenario.”
In the next scenario he pulled a Taser instead of the Glock 17 and was bitten by the dog of a machete-wielding homeless man.
Reynolds said retired Santa Rosa police chief and current City Councilman Tom Schwedhelm and retired Santa Rosa Police Lt. Ernesto Olivares also have used the simulator. In the coming month Reynolds plans to bring in civil grand jury members for a training, as well as members from Leadership Santa Rosa.