By Erin Tyszko
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Harford County has begun using a new computer-simulation system that helps law enforcement officers better train for shootouts and other emergency situations.
In the training program, officers stand on a platform surrounded by large computer screens with images of real-life circumstances, such as an active shooter in a school or parking lot. The officers are armed with a gun and must react in real-time to the events occurring on the screens in front of them.
“The average officer only goes to the range once or twice a year, so they are not at the proficiency level that we want to see them and what they get with this is a different type of training,” said Deputy First Class Thomas Wehrle, who is with the Special Operations Division in the Harford County Sheriff Department and one of five men who run the training locally.
“They understand how to shoot but not when to shoot until we put them in a real-life scenario where they have to identify the threat and make a split decision,” Wehrle added.
The system, which is called the the V-300 Simulator, costs $350,000 and was purchased with confiscated drug money of convicted drug dealers, according to the Harford County Sheriff Office.
Scott DiLullo, the federal law enforcement sales manager at VirTra headquarters located in Arizona, said that Harford County is being progressive. They are looking for a way to enhance their training above the states standards, he said.
“People don’t realize the physiological effects from being in a gun fire battle,” DiLullo said. “Officers make poor decisions under high stress, so we want them to be prepared so they understand what their bodies are going to go through when they are out there fighting for their lives.”
VirTra systems have the option to intensify the scenario by adding a “Threat Fire” device, which is like a taser that has up to 80,000 volts. It reacts to the decisions the officers make and is optional for them to wear. The device is patented with VirTra and it attaches on the belt. The operator adjusts it accordingly depending on how the scenario plays out.
“We want our officers to stop treating the training like a video game and actually learn from their actions and understand how to better handle these scenarios,” DiLullo said.
Ultimately, VirTra is scenario-based training where officers are given a .40-caliber Glock, which is then electronically converted into the simulator. The gun will shoot a laser to the screen, which will resemble a gunshot. The magazine is stripped out and replaced with a CO2 cartridge so when it fires it still feels like it is shooting a bullet.
Not all the scenarios that these officers face require lethal force. Some of them require shooting people, other times officers can talk down the suspect. Other than these officers being out on patrol and waiting for something to happen, there is no other way to experience things as such, according to Whehrle,
“Depending what they do or fail to do, the operator of the system will change the way the scenario will play out,” Wehrle said. “That is how we train these officers and justify their actions as to why they made the decisions they did to help them learn.”
The simulator is also being used to train citizens. So far, VirTra has sold between 200 and 300 systems worldwide.
Meaghan Alegi, a senior assistant county attorney, is one of a few people who have had the chance to experience the simulator.
“My heart was racing, and I felt a sense of anxiety as I waited for the scene to unfold,” Alegi said. “Mentally I was nervous and scared and felt unprepared for what I was about to encounter.”
The officers have not been trained at this level before. They are used to a one screen, shoot or no shoot scenario – not something that is so immersive, according to VirTra headquarters.
The public must realize that the departments are giving these officers the most basic level of training and expecting them to be able to handle the worst scenarios possible, DiLullo said.
“I have always had the utmost respect for our officers, but after having completed the training and utilizing the simulator, I have more respect for them than I thought possible,” Alegi said. “They are constantly put in no-win situations on every call to which they respond. At any moment, even a routine simple traffic stop, can turn deadly and they are faced with having to make split second decisions, which will then be scrutinized by the public and those outside of the agencies.”
“At the end of the day, these officers are human beings just like you and I,” DiLullo said. “They aren’t perfect but are expected to be.”