APPLETON, Wis. (AP) — In the center of three large screens in front of police academy student Amelia Correa, an argument between a man and two women — one armed with a baseball bat — played out on a stretch of grass.
Her attention was divided, intentionally.
To her left were tables of onlookers. Soon, one of the women involved in the confrontation walked to her right.
She called out to the man and woman, first introducing herself then yelling at the man repeatedly to step away from the woman.
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Then the woman with the bat came swinging at her. The screen turned red as if she were hitting the officer. Correa pulled her gun and fired. The sound of rounds came through speakers and the simulated shots would later appear on the screen as she talked through the scenario with an instructor.
With the video paused, what followed was a back and forth between Correa and Fox Valley Technical College police academy Director Tim Hufschmid, who was controlling the scenario from a computer. They were part of a group that demonstrated the college’s new technology for USA Today Network-Wisconsin .
“I had to look at all three (screens) to make sure what she was going to come at me with, just in case,” she said, motioning to the woman who had walked away from the argument. “But I still had to keep my focus on (the onlookers) because they’re still here and there are five of them.”
And then there are the two people in front of her — the man and the woman with the bat.
Depending on the distance between the woman and the officer, and where the officer was struck, the bat could potentially deliver a lethal blow, Correa said in response to a question from Hufschmid.
The three screens laid out in a wide semi-circle are an upgrade from a one-screen system the college previously used. When it’s integrated into classes next semester, it will give students a more immersive, realistic experience when it comes to situations they’ll encounter, including use-of-force — an issue that continues to draw close scrutiny across the nation.
Instructors say that national conversation didn’t prompt them to upgrade their system. Still, having officers who know when they are legally able to use force — and can articulate why they did — can help build trust between an officer, their department and the community, said Cory McKone, criminal justice instructor and department chair at Fox Valley Technical College.
“As law enforcement officers, when they use force, they’re going to have to explain why they used force,” he said. “That becomes really important. … They need to be able to explain to many different people why they chose the force they chose, why they did what they did.”
The new MILO Range is just one part of training for students and will be more widely used in the criminal justice associate degree program than in the 720-hour police academy.
Scenarios also have the option to use pepper spray, a Taser or a baton but students’ communication skills are key. The focus is voluntary compliance.
“If we can get the worst person in the world to comply with what we’re asking them to do without anybody being harmed, that is our main goal,” Correa said.
When Mike Steffes, the state Department of Justice’s deputy administrator of the division of law enforcement services, began his career in 1993, it was seldom possible to incorporate good, scenario-based training.
Today, these kinds of simulators are used in training programs across Wisconsin, and police academy recruits also have to prove that they can communicate effectively, handle different types of calls and properly document them afterward, he said.
He thinks it’s critical that training keeps improving.
“I think our communities are demanding it to build community trust,” he said. “But in addition, the livelihood of all of our citizens depends on a well-trained police officer. So I think it’s really important that we take every effort to do scenario-based training, video-based training, solid debriefing, using every opportunity as a training moment to teach good decision-making, good tactical deployment and good threat evaluation.”
The simulator gives students the opportunity to make mistakes in an environment where instructors can pause, back up and retrain. It helps avoid “training scars,” McKone said.
In another scenario, police academy student Bryce LaLuzerne talked to a man in a parking lot while a cellphone rang insistently. Then the man reached into the back of his sport utility vehicle, pulled a gun and fired. But with the touch of a button, the scenario could have been completely different and his hand could have emerged with the ringing phone.
“The ultimate thing is, you test his decision-making, so if he makes a wrong decision, let’s have that wrong decision happen in here,” McKone said. “Let’s have those decisions, those potentially wrong decisions, happen in this safe environment. … If he’s going to mistake that cellphone as a firearm, let’s have that happen here, build that mental Rolodex for the future.”
The ultimate goal is that the students deal with situations in training that they’ll likely encounter on the street.
For Correa, this kind of training feels like it’s preparing her for her career.
“They’re not handing us a gun and saying, ‘You know what, go get the bad people,'” she said. “They’re saying, this is what you have to do. This is the order of escalation that you will have to see through before you pull out that weapon.”
Information from: Post-Crescent Media, http://www.postcrescent.com