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Simulator is criminal justice learning lab
29 February 2012

REAL SITUATIONS UNFOLD: United Tribes Criminal Justice student Brett Smith aims his weapon during a simulated traffic-stop-gone-bad played out February 14 during a class session in the college's hi-tech law enforcement training simulator.
DENNIS J. NEUMANN <> United Tribes News

BISMARCK (UTN) - Officer Brett Smith has his service weapon leveled and ready to fire at a bad guy who is about to shoot his police officer partner. But he doesn't have a clear line because the perp is using the partner as a shield after surprising him during a routine traffic stop. Smith shouts for him to drop the weapon and release the officer but he does neither and the shooting begins. Sparks fly from the lawbreaker's gun barrel together with the angry crack of pistol fire exchanged at close range on a city street. The hostage officer and the criminal both crumble to the ground and the mayhem is over.

      But wait, Officer Smith is wounded. The computer says he was hit by gunfire. And lucky for student Brett Smith that it's just a computer diagnosis. The traffic stop, the hostage situation, the violent gunfire it wasn't real. It looked and sounded real; even the kick of the handgun felt real when Smith squeezed the trigger. It played out in a hi-tech criminal justice training simulator at United Tribes Technical College.

Scenarios in the VirTra 300 are driven by choices and selections made by the instructor at the computer, right foreground. Trainees are not aware of what will happen in the scenario. Students here are learning how to gather evidence and reconstruct the crime after it happened.

      "I thought it was pretty realistic. It was loud. You had the sounds of the car. You could clearly hear my partner talking and the suspect talking," said Smith, from Standing Rock, a student in UTTC's four-year Criminal Justice program. "It was actually pretty real."

Computer Controlled Situation

      It was Smith's first time inside the simulator, a raised platform in a darkened room surrounded on five sides by large video screens. Loud audio speakers and rear-projection video surrounded the trainee in a 300 degree circle. The system is controlled by a master computer that employs laser technology to simulate firing a weapon at something or someone on the screens. Each gun is fitted with a co2 cartridge to give the kick of recoil.

      "You can talk about scenarios here (in class) but to have an actual situation that might arise, where you have a weapon and the suspect shoots at you, is a whole different thing," said Smith.

Virtual Firearms Simulator

After the simulated crime, students are back in the classroom for a debriefing and critique session.

      That's exactly what Rik Cutting had in mind when he scheduled some of his students for a session in the $300,000 device. The virtual firearms simulator was designed to train law enforcement officers, military personnel and students in situational awareness, deescalating techniques and tactical marksmanship. When installed last summer in the college's new science and technology building by VirTra Systems, Tempe, AZ, it was one of only a handful in use around the country.

      "We have 84 basic scenarios in there," said Cutting, a retired U.S. Navy officer and former law enforcement officer who chairs the college's Criminal Justice Program. "We can branch off of roughly half of those to either escalate or deescalate a situation depending upon the training that's involved."

      The different video scenarios and branching options can be lethal or non-lethal in nature and run the gamut from DUI stops, to hostage situations and domestic disputes.

      It's been "incredibly beneficial" for active duty law enforcement officers who've used it, said Cutting. "The reviews we've got back have been fantastic." Some scenarios are particularly suited to training victim's advocates and justice professionals working in support roles.

Educational Adaptation

Rik Cutting, UTTC Criminal Justice Program Chair, leads his students in reconstructing events in the simulator to drive home lessons about gathering information and evidence for court.

      In this case, Cutting picked the traffic stop scenario and two others for students in his Criminal Evidence and Procedure class. Aside from the obvious benefit of learning how to negotiate a potentially lethal incident without being shot for real, numerous other teaching applications are possible. Cutting focused this session on a second tier of learning after the shooting designed to teach investigation and evidence collection for use in court.

      "This was our first time doing this in this course," he said. "It's not necessarily for content but whether they're doing it in accordance with the Constitutional Rules of Evidence. Because conviction or acquittal is all about whether you get your evidence into court."

      Based on the success of this session, Cutting says the next tier would be to interview witnesses and interrogate the suspect. At any level, the simulator is a dramatic teaching tool.

      "Are we, in fact, teaching them what they need to learn to go out and do this," he said. "Participation drives home the learning goals."

Next Time

      Despite the fact that he was shot during the simulation, Brett Smith said he thought he did a pretty well.

      "I think I did OK. You could always do better. But for my first time in, I think I did alright."

      Smith said he was nervous, not knowing what to expect. His verbal responses came from what he learned in the books and listening to his instructors. But the simulation, as an active officer responding to an incident, changed his whole perspective.

      "I learned to always be ready. You never know what to expect, even in a traffic stop," he said. "It taught me to always expect the unexpected. Always be ready."

      Smith said he would definitely do it again. And next time he'll be more prepared for what could happen.


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