Senior Airman Christian Reyes, a patrolman at Travis Air Force Base, uses virtual reality training to test his reaction to a use-of-force scenario, Sept. 25, at Travis. (Senior Airman Christian Conrad/U.S. Air Force file photo (2020))
Imagine it’s your first day as a policeman on the beat. The perp you’ve been chasing just rounded a corner on foot and now he’s nowhere in sight. You notice an open window and draw your pistol.
The sweat from your palm slickens the gun’s grip as you quietly attempt to swing your leg over the window’s low threshold. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a figure – the perp – sprint past you. You scream, “Stop!” The perp jumps a fence instead. In a moment of desperation, you level your pistol at the fleeing suspect and drop your finger to the trigger.
But are you making the right choice?
It’s a question that’s at the heart of a new virtual reality training system at Travis Air Force Base.
In a streamlined, immersive environment, Travis police officers are now able to acclimate themselves to stressful situations they could face in a real-world environment with the help of virtual reality.
Not only that, but instructors with the 60th Security Forces Squadron, the base’s law enfocement unit, also have the ability to manipulate the parameters of each virtual engagement in real time, giving every scenario an element of unpredictability.
The system goes a long way in innovating the unit’s training, said James Frazier, a training instructor.
“The idea of our squadron using the (virtual reality) technology originally came from the 60th Air Mobility Wing’s Phoenix Spark personnel,” Frazier said.
Phoenix Spark is a team a program structured to create rapid innovations in the Air Force.
“The 60th (Security Forces Squadron) evaluated the system as a viable application to utilize as a proper training and evaluation tool and subsequently reported that the product is a highly effective tool to utilize for officers’ use of force response,” Frazier said.
Police departments’ use of force has become a hot-button topic in recent months with concerns about its use ramping up after numerous instances of police-involved deaths.
It’s an unfortunate reality to have to negotiate, said Frazier, but a reality nonetheless.
“Part of the reason this (virtual reality) technology has been gaining visibility in the law enforcement community in recent years is the current events happening across the country involving (law enforcement) officer’s actions while using force during engagements with subjects,” said Frazier, who has held a job in various police departments for 26 years. “(Virtual reality) gives an agency another tool to evaluate an officer’s ability to recognize the need to use force and train the ability to properly apply it, to gain control of the situation.”
Staff Sgt. Deanna Ciesiel, another 60th Security Forces Squadron instructor, said the training relies on muscle memory to nurture a certain degree of comfort in officers during high-stress situations.
“When you drill correct procedure enough times, it becomes instinct,” Ciesiel said. “When good practice is second nature to an officer, they can react quicker to situations, which not only keeps them safe, but also allows them to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.”
Ciesiel, who has participated in the training, credits the system’s ability to immerse its user to its success.
“What you hear and see and say – even the amount of tension and adrenaline you might feel – it’s all replicated and picked up in (virtual reality),” Ciesiel said. “While it’s not meant to replace real life, it does offer some advantages over traditional instruction.”
The training is abstract, existing only in a digital space. This allows the scenarios officers face during training to range from routine situations such as small traffic violations to tense confrontations that may require lethal force.
Training for threats that change from moment to moment is vital, Frazier said. It’s not going to be the predictable scenarios that get officers in trouble; it’s the ones they’ve never imagined.
“Our (airmen) can’t afford to learn lessons in the field,” Frazier said. “Uncertainty in protocol can be the difference of a suspect in custody and a suspect in the morgue or an officer in the morgue. The importance of investing in a multi-leveled, multi-faceted training acumen is something that can never be understated.”
Currently, Travis and the security forces technical school at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, are the only locations implementing the system, with higher Air Force leadership open to the possibility of funding the system’s use at other bases, Frazier said.
For defenders like Ciesiel, it, ultimately, comes down to building a stronger force, one that knows its procedures and executes them perfectly.
“Our use of force is governed by our Air Force and Department of Defense instructions,” she said. “Knowing them, training them and holding ourselves to that standard will inevitably result in our officers’ success in real-world events. To get there, though, takes a dynamic approach, and the (virtual reality) training helps us accomplish that.”