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Ignacio police offer an inside look at de-escalation training

It’s a chose-your-own-adventure simulation with laser guns
Ignacio Police Department patrol officer Ryan Boyce goes through a training exercise last week in Ignacio in which an adult “suspect” suddenly pulls a knife and stabs a young person in a school.

IGNACIO – Amid nationwide protests calling for police reform, the Ignacio Police Department offered an inside look at law enforcement training: a choose-your-own-adventure simulator with laser guns and real-life scenarios.

Recent deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police sparked protests and divided communities over law enforcement practices. Training has become a central issue, particularly around use of force and de-escalation. The Durango Police Department is responding to local calls for reform with new community outreach and incident response initiatives. Colorado even passed an expansive police reform law in June to update law enforcement practices statewide.

“A lot of the new bill, we’ve already been doing,” said Ryan Boyce, a patrol officer and trainer for the Ignacio Police Department. “De-escalation is a big one that bill stresses, trying to lessen the use of force from cops. That’s always been a No. 1 rule for us.”

In the small town of Ignacio, officers practice de-escalation techniques in a stress-inducing, unpredictable training simulator.

Preston Rea, a trainer and school resource officer with the Ignacio Police Department, runs a training exercise last week in Ignacio.

The trainer, Preston Rea, an Ignacio Police Department school resource officer, launched a video: an unknown disturbance call. A first-person video showed the officer entering the house, then an older woman lying unresponsive on the floor.

“Ignacio Police Department!” Boyce said. “Is anybody inside the house? Everybody OK?”

A man entered the scene, showing symptoms of mental distress.

“Calm down. ... It’s all right,” Boyce said to a man in the video.

Each scenario in the MILO Range Training Simulator is broken into stages. Like a choose-your-own-adventure program, it can branch off into different outcomes depending on what course the trainer chooses. (MILO stands for Multiple Interactive Learning Objectives.)

In another scenario, the officer steps into a classroom and sees a teacher, student and an individual armed with a knife. At a traffic stop, the first-person video depicts an officer approaching a parked car, where a man sat with his hands on the steering wheel.

In each simulation, Boyce responded both verbally and physically to the people in the video – a calm tone of voice, hand gestures and physical posture all play a role in de-escalating situations, he said.

“This (simulation training) just helps jump-start the process of thinking, ‘What are my tools that are available to use in a situation I’m not in control of?’” Rea said.

By choosing different courses through the simulation, the trainer can increase the amount of stress the officer experiences, Rea said. That helps officers get used to performing properly in stressful situations.

“When we’re doing regular training ... there’s not a lot of stress involved with that,” Rea said. “This is a way for us to throw some things into the mix that aren’t predictable.”

For example, in the school, the man with the knife attacked the student, and Boyce fired three shots at the attacker. Even veteran officers still find themselves in unexpected situations during the training.

At the traffic stop, the driver suddenly exited the car and shot at the officer. Casey Martin, a trainer who has been doing these scenarios for 14 years, had time only to sidestep before using his firearm.

“It takes a second and a half for a person to react,” Martin said. “That first shot he gets, you could be dead.”

After the simulation, the trainer and the officer debrief. In the school scenario, the trainers looked at timing, particularly when the knife was used and when the officer fired the gun, and the legal justification for using the force that was used.

“More of what we’re looking at is, is the officer reacting appropriately to what’s presented on the screen?” Rea said. “Are they sucked into tunnel vision and only seeing a portion of the scenario, or are they seeing the whole thing?”

Ignacio Police Department patrol officer Ryan Boyce demonstrates de-escalation techniques during a video simulation training last week in Ignacio.

Police departments across the state share a mobile MILO Range unit, and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office offers local departments access to its stationary unit. The Ignacio Police Department also trains every week on other tactics, including driving, self-defense and firearms use.

During the coronavirus pandemic, officers have participated in more online webinars and classes. They quiz themselves on policy and participate in courses about recognizing behaviors of trafficked children and responding to hostage situations.

The officers said working in a small town like Ignacio can make the job, and de-escalating situations, easier.

The community is very tight and supportive, Rea said. Officers have the opportunity to get to know people’s backgrounds, their job situations and family issues, he said.

“What I love about working here, is how involved we can get with the community,” Boyce said. “It helps calm a lot of things down, especially some heated situations.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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