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Police academy in Mancos unveils new virtual reality training simulator

Regional law enforcement tests and learns how to use latest technology
Matt Purkat, undersheriff with the Dolores County Sheriff’s Office, wears the Apex Officer virtual reality simulator headset at the Southwest Regional Law Enforcement Academy in Mancos. The simulator is the latest training tool for cadets and local law enforcement agencies. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

MANCOS – Visualize a police officer responding to call of a man acting in a menacing manner in a nice tree-lined neighborhood with manicured lawns and boxy two-story homes.

When Sgt. Angelo Martinez of the Cortez Police Department arrives on scene the suspect, whose name is Randy, stands in the driveway of one of the homes. Randy has short blond hair and a five o’clock shadow. He is wearing discount-rack blue shorts with white splotches and a red tank top that reveals a paunch around his midriff.

Brad Ray of the Mancos Police Department hands Sgt. Angelo Martinez of the Cortez Police Department a simulator handgun with a GPS tracking “puck” attached to the base of the grip. The Apex Officer virtual reality simulator is the latest training tool for the Southwest Regional Law Enforcement Academy in Mancos, as well as for local law enforcement agencies. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Sgt. Martinez asks Randy what is going on and if there is a problem. Randy responds belligerently by telling Martinez to get lost – that he’s the problem. Things happen fast after that. Randy complies with orders to drop the knife that suddenly appears in his right hand, then raises both hands above his head. But then, without warning, his hands drop and he pulls a handgun tucked into his waistband from behind his back and draws down on Martinez.

Martinez does not have to visualize the situation. He is experiencing it in the new three-dimensional virtual reality simulator at the Southwest Regional Law Enforcement Academy in Mancos. Martinez can hear virtual traffic in the distance and birds singing in the trees.

The fresh-out-of-the-box Apex Officer virtual reality simulator was set up and tested for the first time by nine law enforcement professionals March 15. The simulator is the latest training tool for cadets and local law enforcement agencies.

Randy charges Martinez but before he can squeeze off a round, Martinez raises his handgun and fires three quick shots. Randy pitches forward and falls on his face at Martinez’s feet. The simulator software breaks down the hard details afterward. Martinez’s first shot was a hit, his second shot hit Randy when he was just 1 foot and 11 inches away, and the third was a headshot when Randy was just inches from reaching Martinez. The entire “scenario” lasted just 2 minutes and 21 seconds.

“I think it’s going to be a useful tool for our local law enforcement agencies,” Martinez said later. “It’s going to provide officers with real-life experience without putting them actually out in the field. And they will be better equipped to handle different types of situations.”

Martinez added that he did not feel disoriented despite it being his first experience with virtual reality.

The Apex Officer, which retails for $130,000 (the academy received a half-price deal), comes with a software suit that offers a multitude of scenarios with a variety of locations, suspects, behaviors and weapons. Then there is the equipment, which includes goggles, headphones and mics along with a battery backpack and “pucks” with GPS sensors that attach to the base of the handguns. Four base-stations set the parameters of the simulation that trainees can maneuver within.

While the trainee is in the virtual world, the trainer controls the suspect and surroundings via a laptop and headset, and actually speaks for the suspect whose mouth moves with the trainer’s words. The trainer also speaks to the trainee as the dispatcher, but the voice is modulated to sound different.

The officers who participated in the training session teamed up as trainer and trainee while receiving instructions remotely on how to set up and operate the simulation from an Apex trainer. Five pairs trained on the simulator, through a range of surroundings, weapons and behaviors, which included a mentally unstable person with a gun who was threatening suicide in a hospital and a drunk guy in an alley who says he just needs a ride home.

Having a little free-firing and free ammunition fun
Sgt. Bobbie Fender of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office prepares to expend a serious amount of free virtual ammunition as he has a little fun in the Apex Officer “gun range” scenario before entering a simulation. Shannon Baker with the Sheriff’s Office acts as the trainer as she runs the simulator and communicates with Fender through a headset. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The most entertaining scenario involved La Plata County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bobbie Fender, who while waiting in the virtual gun range (which saves on batteries) for the trainer to set up a scenario depicting a drunk casino visitor threatening people with a bottle, decided to expend copious quantities of virtual ammunition. The shots rang in the trainer’s headphones.

“Stop shooting,” trainer Shannon Baker told Fender as he continued to spray more bullets than Bruce Willis in the first two Die Hard movies combined.

“Stop shooting,” she said again. But Fender only seemed to find a second wind or perhaps he was fending off a swarm of virtual killer bees that a glitch in the system had released into the virtual gun range.

“Can you hear me?” Baker asked. “I can hear you,” Fender responded as he blasted away unabated.

Dolores County Undersheriff Matt Purkat stands in the middle of the Apex Officer virtual reality simulator preparing to enter a simulation that featured a drunken man in an alleyway. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Once inside the casino simulation, Fender continued to have a little fun or perhaps establish that, as Baker joked, he is never tasked by the sheriff's Office to act as a negotiator.

“Put the bottle down or I’ll shoot you in the face,” Fender informed the female suspect. Not having witnessed Fender’s warm-up, the virtual suspect refused to comply despite Fender’s repeated warnings.

Needless to say, Fender reverted to shooting-gallery mode quickly downing the suspect along with presumably everybody else in the casino who was not fleet of foot. The trainer informed Fender the suspect was down with the first shot but that he missed a few times before scoring hits with the last six.

“I’d like to point out that I had 100% accuracy,” Martinez said to Fender.

Impressions from officers about the new simulator

Once the fun was over the officers shared their overall opinions about the Apex simulator, which is far more advanced than the previous Milo system the officers have trained with in the past. The Milo offered prerecorded videos on a flat screen.

“It’s kind of cartoonish at first,” Fender said. “But you can push past it once you’re in it. It exceeded my expectations. And it’s a must because it’s part of the training standard we have to go through to shoot or not shoot or de-escalation use of force training.”

The drawbacks were the large backpack that trainees wear, which he imagines will eventually be advanced to something much smaller, as well as the GPS puck protruding from the bottom of the pistol grip – because it does not allow the gun to be holstered.

Dolores County Undersheriff Matt Purkart, who stumbled on a virtual curb while dealing with the drunk in the alley, rated the system a 7 on a scale 1 to 10.

“It’s like Star Trek,” he said. “It’s another tool. I don’t think it will replace any of the hard training that we do, but it will bolster it. It’s realistic, but it’s not reality. It’s still not a replacement for real-life training because it’s not real. But it’s about as close as I’ve seen.”

Apex Officer cost benefits

Doug Parker, director of the academy, applied for a grant to purchase the Apex Officer a year ago. It was delivered at the end of February but not taken out of the box, as per Apex instructions, until this first training session.

“The Pueblo Law Enforcement Academy was the first to get one and was actually the first academy in the state to get one of these,” Parker said. “So Apex gave us a deal, half off, so I got it for $62,500, which was a real plus.”

The simulator will be available to any police agencies in the area that want to use it and those who could not make it out for the test run will be invited to come out another time, he said.

“It just fits with our role as a regional academy,” Parker said.

While the Apex Officer is quite an improvement from the old Milo system, the “gold standard” is actually the $250,000 VirTra simulator which comes with an optional $4,000 a month subscription plan.

“With Apex the updates are free,” Parker said. “So it’s a good deal for a small academy and small agencies.”

Parker said the officers involved in this first session were “very excited” to come out and train on it.

“It will benefit the officers and the communities and agencies that they work for,” he said. “We’ve all seen the bad behavior of officers (on the news) and this will help them get trained the right way.”


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