Do police simulators work? Robert Gehrke steps in one to find out

Intense scenarios can prepare officers for worst cases, but they’re still not the real thing.

It all happened in a few seconds: A man holding a knife stands over a woman on the ground, pauses briefly, then breaks into a sprint at an officer responding to a call of a woman stabbed in Pioneer Park.

With the man at a dead run, the second officer fired multiple shots. The man with the knife fell forward and died on the grass.

Salt Lake City Police released body cam images of the city’s latest fatal police shooting last week, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have responded if I was in that officer’s shoes, holding that gun and had just one or two heartbeats to respond.

It was a question fresher in my mind because recently I visited the state’s police training simulator at the Attorney General’s offices in Murray.

These sorts of simulators are not new, and they are widely used in departments around the country. The idea is to put officers or cadets in an immersive environment — in this case, surrounded by five full-size movie screens — and make them respond to some of the most intense scenarios they’re likely to encounter, then see how they respond.

So they let me see how I would respond. On one hip I had an empty gun with a CO2 cartridge to simulate the recoil, on the other a disarmed Taser.

The instructor wants to see the officers draw on their training and try to de-escalate a situation, try to connect with and calm down a subject. If it comes to it, do they reach for the Taser or their Glock? And, finally, what can they learn from their response?

The situations are extreme, said Scott Carver, training director with the Utah Attorney General’s office, the type you hope officers never have to encounter — a man threatening to drop his infant child off a bridge; a domestic violence hostage situation; a suicidal man with a gun; or an active shooter at a movie theater.

The response of the characters on the screen are controlled by an instructor — in my case it was Will Fowlke with the AG’s office — who can alter the story, escalating or de-escalating based on the officer’s response, then replay the scenario and recap the responses.

And even though it’s just projections on a screen, they’re effective. The pulse quickens, pits sweat, throat tightens, hands can get a little shaky.

I learned two things: First, I would be a lousy cop.

I fumbled for my Taser and let the suicidal suspect enter a building and kill his former co-workers. I completely froze in the domestic violence situation and the hostage was killed. I was able to talk down the father with his infant son, so that’s a win, I suppose.

I had some qualms with the scenarios I went through. Too many of them, it seemed, ended with the right response being shooting a suspect, with too little opportunity on defusing the situation.

Second, is that these simulations do seem like the most effective way — the only way, really — to prepare officers for those worst-case scenarios.

Gauging how effective they might be, though, can be tricky, according to Susan Strauss, who is studying applications for virtual reality in police forces and the military for the RAND Corporation.

“Getting the data to show that the training works is the Holy Grail,” she said. “One of the challenges of testing effectiveness of training for shoot/don’t shoot situations in policing is that shooting or an officer pulling their gun doesn’t happen very often and you have to have enough behavior on the job to test if there is a meaningful difference between the … VR or simulation-based training group and the regular method of training group.”

Ultimately, said Tim Marler, Strauss’ colleague at RAND, simulators are a tool. For them to be effective, the scenarios have to be well-tailored, focusing on specific training goals, job requirements and policies, offering enough opportunities to practice, and measuring performance over time.

“I think these kinds of technology … present many opportunities in many different sectors but, especially given the headlines today, in law enforcement,” he told me. “There could really be some benefits to law enforcement, however I think it all requires significant thought and consideration of how these will be implemented and deployed.”

No amount of training, no matter what it is, will mean that officers won’t be second-guessed when they use force.

After the body cam from the Pioneer Park shooting was released, the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter posted a statement that it shouldn’t be so easy for someone to commit “suicide by cop,” and that officers should “preserve lives, not take them.”

“They teach police hand to hand combat, they never use it. They give police tasers, they never use them. They give police de-escalation training, they never use it,” the statement went on. “The police use guns. They take lives.”

From what I saw in that Pioneer Park body cam footage, the officers did — or tried to do — what they are taught to do. They didn’t show up and start shooting. They maintained distance, tried to communicate with the armed man, attempted to de-escalate, ordered him to stop.

It didn’t work, and it was an unfortunate end to a situation that was extremely dangerous, but it was one that officers will often encounter. My colleagues Paighten Harkins and Jessica Miller have compiled 30 incidents in 2020 where officers shot at suspects, tying a record set the year before.

When police do, having them as prepared as possible beforehand — including roleplaying similarly life-threatening incidents — may end up saving the life of the officers or the next individuals they encounter.