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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is committed to being a model law enforcement agency for the nation, and that starts at our Training Academy.

As a CMPD recruit, you’ll not only learn from some of the most knowledgeable experts in the field. You’ll also bolster your policing skills and prepare for real-life scenarios using leading-edge technology like virtual reality (VR).

VR allows you to experience common scenarios before you encounter them in the field. It’s practice for thinking on your feet, navigating your body’s natural stress response and making the right decisions to de-escalate situations that could otherwise put members of the community, another officer or even yourself in danger.

We recently caught up with CMPD Officer Mark A. Smith, virtual reality instructor, and Officer Diego Fuentes, graduate of Recruit Class 194, to learn more about how VR is shaping officers’ interactions with the citizens of Charlotte. Here’s what they said:

What are the benefits of using VR training in the Academy?

OFFICER SMITH: Axon, the parent company of  TASER, created virtual reality training for law enforcement to help put recruits and veteran officers in all sorts of different situations. 

Our previous technology was expensive and took up an entire room. By comparison, VR headsets are relatively inexpensive, small, portable and can be used almost anywhere. A student can be immersed in a variety of training experiences in a few minutes.

We currently use 22 scenarios, including:

  • People who are hard of hearing,
  • Those who speak a different language,
  • A number of different mental health-type events and
  • Traditional policing scenarios like traffic stops, disturbances and domestic violence calls.

The VR headsets are excellent training tools for recruits in the Academy as well as veteran officers. They allow us to build a mental toolbox that will lead to better and safer outcomes.

What happens during a VR training session?

OFFICER SMITH: Recruits typically pick the scenarios they wish to experience. There are thumbnails and titles that help them understand the content. 

Many scenarios have branching points that allow the student to make a choice in how they interact with the encounter. For example, a student might choose to continue to use words or verbal commands to de-escalate, or might need to draw a  TASER, use a TASER feature known as a Warning Arc or deploy the TASER.

Students can also use a training pistol called a Shot-Indicating Resetting Trigger (SIRT) pistol, which uses infrared LASERs that can be seen and registered in the VR headset.

There are also different drills and target practice options that can be done in VR with the TASER as well as the SIRT pistol. This allows police recruits and veteran officers hundreds of reps at no additional cost. It won’t ever replace the need for live firearms practice and qualification, but the reps help strengthen fundamentals.

We can do this training at a location other than the Academy and on any shift, which is huge. Typically all training at the Academy occurs during first and second shift shift hours.

What scenario(s) did you experience in your VR training?

OFFICER FUENTES: I went through domestic violence scenarios, a suicide call for service, a disturbance and a missing person call for service with a language barrier during my training.

How realistic did the scenarios feel?

OFFICER FUENTES: The scenarios felt pretty realistic, especially considering we didn’t know the actors. They set the expectation that during the call you should be gathering as much information as you can and be able to react in a split-second should a situation change.

How does VR complement other academic and hands-on training recruits receive?

OFFICER SMITH: Recruits complete several days of subject encounter scenarios during which training staff act as role players. A large portion of these take place outside.

This is excellent training, but it is very time-consuming because only one or two recruits typically go through a scenario at a time. It is also dependent on having adequate staff as role players, instructors and safety personnel, as well as having props such as training weapons and vehicles.

As a complement to these live exercises, recruits can experience scenarios in VR in a classroom setting with no additional assistance. This is helpful before they begin doing scenario-based training in reality.

VR training is also very safe. There is virtually no risk of injury to the student, and since role players aren’t needed, there is no risk of injury to the training staff.

When do recruits experience VR training?

OFFICER SMITH: Recruits are typically exposed to VR training later in their Academy training, as we want them to already have a solid foundation for our Response to Resistance Policy, TASER and firearms training, as well as mental health awareness and training.

How many of a recruit’s total hours at the Academy are spent in VR training?

OFFICER SMITH: Currently, the number is very low – probably less than 1-2 hours per recruit – but that number will change.

Axon is sending out new VR controllers that will replace the need for using an actual TASER and wrist tracking bracelets. This new equipment will speed up the transition time between students, which means even more quality time spent in actual training scenarios.

What surprised you about your VR training?

OFFICER FUENTES: I was surprised at the quality of the VR. I had never used it, and I was surprised how I was able to engage with the characters in the scenarios.

How has your VR training translated to your work in the Hickory Grove Division?

OFFICER FUENTES: The VR training put me in scenarios that gave me a short amount of time to make a decision. Sometimes I had a lot of information, and sometimes I would roll into a scenario and have to make the best decision possible. It reinforced the knowledge I already had from the Academy and forced me to rely on my training.

Now, being out here as an officer, that is how calls for service tend to go. I have to be confident in my decisions and ensure that I abide by department policies, while ensuring the safety of fellow officers, citizens and myself. Learning to talk to people and find common ground on which you can relate often eases people’s minds.

How does VR training better prepare recruits for real-world scenarios?

OFFICER SMITH: VR training helps us build a mental toolbox for handling different scenarios.

We can run recruits and officers through in-person simulations for different types of calls – even ones where a person might be in crisis. But it’s very time- and labor-intensive and typically only happens at the Academy.

Having the ability to encounter subjects with autism, Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, a substance use disorder, or even a fellow officer in crisis allows students to experience scenarios in VR before they might encounter them in the real world.

The ability to use a decision tree also allows for second chances. If the decision to go in one direction is unsuccessful, the scenario will ask the student to choose a different direction or if they would like to repeat the scenario. 

In real life, we might not have the chance for a do-over. VR training allows students to make their own decisions and strengthens their ability to make correct decisions and de-escalate scenarios when possible. This training ultimately leads to better outcomes in the field.

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