New Willmar PD simulator trains officers in use of force
WILLMAR — When the police officer enters the kitchen of a house after responding to a report of domestic assault, the female victim says her assailant just got out of jail, is drunk and has a gun.
The man comes around a corner, waves a booze bottle around, apologizes for the police being called and then suddenly pulls out a gun and fires at the officer.
Quick on the draw, the officer fires first and the assailant falls to the floor.
In this case, the domestic assault is taking place on a life-size video screen and the responding officer, Willmar Police Officer Ross Livingood, is standing in the training room at the Law Enforcement Center in Willmar.
The officer's pistol fires an infrared laser.
Then, with a couple clicks on the computer, police arrive at a parking lot where two men are arguing and one pulls a gun from his pants and fires at the officer.
Again, Livingood successfully takes out the shooter.
A reporter who stepped into the exercise Monday wasn't so lucky. These are some of the 800 real-life scenarios available on a new use-of-force simulator the Willmar Police Department recently purchased to train officers and demonstrated Monday to members of the local media.
Costing nearly $20,000, the mobile training lab will enhance officer safety and "make sure they use the right type of force when they need to use it," said Police Chief Jim Felt.
The training will also improve public safety, he said.
"We obviously never want to respond to a higher level of force than what we need to. We're very diligent about that," Felt said. "We work very hard to train that way.
Several officers from the Willmar Police Department and Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office underwent training on how to use the system. This week, officers from both departments will have their first opportunity to use the simulator and hone their decision-making skills, Felt said.
Local elected officials will also get to experience the adrenaline-inducing, think-fast-on-your-feet scenarios.
Trainers, including Officer Tony LaPatka, can manipulate the scenarios from a laptop to make them different every time.
With the domestic situation, for example, one time the female victim picks up a gun from the kitchen counter and shoots at the officer, and in yet another variation, as the drunk man apologizes and waves his bottle around, the woman calmly picks up the gun and shoots him.
"We try to get the training as real as possible," LaPatka said.
Frequent training, he said, can help older officers who are "set in our ways" and help younger, inexperienced officers.
Not every scenario involves the use of a firearm to resolve the situation.
Officers can use pepper spray, Taser stun guns, pistols or rifles retrofitted with the infrared lights. Officers are encouraged to also use verbal commands to de-escalate scenes.
Like a coach's review of a football game, the system replays the scenario and the officer's response, showing where shots were fired and how fast they responded.
That feedback allows time for discussion on whether officers took the best action.
This isn't the first time local officers have had video simulator training equipment.
But Felt said the old system had about 40 scenarios and officers had memorized the scenes and knew what to expect.
This system, made by Ti Training Corp, will be updated throughout the year in response to current events. An update that's already been added since the equipment arrived in August includes a shooting situation at a church.
He said he wouldn't be surprised if a new scenario involving a shooter at a large music venue arrives in the future.
"A lot of these scenarios you never experience in real life and you hope you never have to," Felt said. "But this is a chance to try to work through those mentally beforehand."
Although expense would likely prohibit it, Felt said crews from the company could be brought to Willmar to film scenarios at local venues using local actors for an even closer real-life training.