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Partnership provides virtual training for officers

Which way will it go?

Chadron Police Lieutenant Gabriel Walz works through a scenario of some stolen vehicles. The video, controlled by the laptop at left, can be changed based on how the lieutenant responds.

Police officers handle everything from simple traffic stops to violent situations where a split-second decision can make a difference whether they, or the suspects, live or die.

But unless they’re wearing the uniform and badge, most folks will never experience the quick assessment, decisions and emotion an officer does. However, over the past two weeks Police Chief Rick Hickstein and the Chadron Police Department has partnered with Western Nebraska Community College to bring a VirTRa use of force simulator to Chadron for training local law enforcement.

The simulator, set up in the back space of the Chadron High School library, utilizes a large projection screen and prop weapons such as a pistol, stun gun and AR-style rifle. Videos run on the screen can detect when and where the weapons are fired, with results of shots shown after the scenario plays out.

At first glance, the whole setup resembles a shooting video game one might find in an arcade. The biggest difference comes from the controller. While games typically have targets that follow programmed actions, the VirTra system allows a person to change the scenario on the fly with hundreds of options.

For instance, a traffic stop scenario might follow a course in which the driver complies, providing their paperwork when asked. With a simple mouse click, that scenario suddenly changes into one where the driver brings up a gun instead. Because the officers don’t know what’s coming, they must be ready for anything.

Hickstein, or whoever is controlling the scenario, can also read officers’ language — vocal or body — and change the scenario based on what he observes. The simulation can also be paused and critiques given along the way. “I want my staff to make bad decisions here,” the chief said, emphasizing that it's better they make them in a simulation rather than on an actual call

But this training is not just for officers. Hickstein noted Criminal Justice students from the college have used it, and he would like more of the public to experience it when it’s available. Many of the scenarios, while interesting to see for a casual viewer, can become downright terrifying and emotional for the person holding the gun.

Media were invited to experience the system, and it truly helps enhance the connection between law enforcement and the public to better understand the quick decisions officers go through when they get a call.

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