New use-of-force simulator brings Avon police training to a whole new level
Avon Police Department and Eagle County Sheriff’s Office unveil simulator that tests officers’ decision-making in high-stress situations
When it comes to the use of force, police officers are asked to make difficult, split-second decisions – decisions that have come under increased scrutiny in recent years.
The Avon Police Department’s new use-of-force simulator provides law enforcement personnel with a uniquely realistic experience that culminates other training and allows instructors like Sgt. Ken Dammen to identify potential blind spots, biases or areas for improvement.
“I’ve been doing this almost 30 years. … I really haven’t seen anything that puts it all together like this,” Dammen said. “This will save lives and it makes our job — it’s going to make their job a little bit easier.”
Dammen said the department started the process of securing funding for the simulator about a year and a half ago, before George Floyd’s May 2020 murder sparked the latest national reckoning on race and policing in America.
As was the case with body-worn cameras and other transparency and training measures now being mandated by legislative bodies across the nation, the Avon Police Department was ahead of the curve, he said.
The town of Avon joined with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office to secure the less than $50,000 in funding needed to purchase the simulator, Dammen said.
“We are so proud to partner with the Avon Police Department to create this opportunity to provide new and innovative training scenarios to our teams,” the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post after the simulator’s unveiling last week. “Verbal skills are an important part of our jobs, and de-escalation tactics training can only better our teams and the community.”
“The Recon” simulator is made by Ti Training, a first responder training technology company based in Golden, where the company hires professional actors to create training scenarios with more than 3,000 different programmable outcomes.
The technology is a kind of cross between virtual reality and a very high-stress video game, but Dammen said there is no playing around when training for life-or-death decisions.
“I want them to be as confident and competent as possible, to the very best of my ability, when they walk out of this room,” Dammen said. “I can do redos all day in here. Once they leave the door, I can’t redo out there, you only get one shot at it. So, we want to make sure that they’re doing the right thing at the right time.”
The setup takes up a whole room at the Avon Police Department, with a large projector screen covering one wall, a scowling plastic punching dummy in the corner and a table full of lethal and non-lethal weapons programmed to interact with the simulator through motion sensors.
Dammen sits at a desk at the back of the room, watching how officers and Sheriff’s Deputies respond and reprogramming the outcomes of scenarios based on what they do right — or wrong — or on what he wants to test them on that day.
All police officers receive training on how to be vigilant and observant in each situation they are called on to make informed, legal, ethics-based decisions on when to use force and how much, Dammen said. But training with paper targets can only do so much to predict how an officer will actually respond when they are under a lot of stress and have to make a quick decision that could cost them their life or could cost the life of the person they are interacting with.
The Recon, on the other hand, comes very close to the real thing. It elicits actual sweat as a man on the screen unexpectedly pulls a gun from a backpack and raises a person’s heart rate as they try to see all aspects of a complicated scenario through the narrow lens of a stress-based reaction, Dammen said.
This panicked lack of awareness is like “looking through a soda straw,” he said, and every time an officer or deputy trains on the machine they can widen that view a little bit more to pay attention to more details and respond more efficiently. Dammen called this process “stress inoculation.”
“Every time they come in here, I’m giving them a little dose of stress, OK? And the first time they come in here, their stress level is high, and you can tell and sometimes it can affect your decision,” Dammen said. “The more often I can bring them in here and expose them and give them little shots of stress, they’re going to be able to deal with that stress better.”
Simulations can be so stressful that Dammen limits each training session to five scenarios, which last anywhere from a few minutes to a few seconds each as this is representative of the amount of time police officers often have to respond in real-life situations, he said.
Trainees strap into the training belts, which look and feel exactly like the real deal, and run through the exercises, he said. After each one, he has a debrief with the officer in which they explain why they made each decision. Dammen then has them watch a video recording of them handling the scenario and then they debrief for a second time.
The self-reflection piece — and challenging officers to explain why they did what they did — is crucial, he said. It forces them to think critically about the complications they encountered and how they responded.
Dammen can customize training scenarios to test officers on various skills as well as to test for biases, racial or otherwise, he said.
In still other scenarios, officers practice communicating with people with autism or assisting someone as they navigate a mental health crisis, Dammen said.
The lack of this kind of training has led to excessive use of force by police in other parts of the state, such as in the death of Elijah McClain, an autistic musician and massage therapist from Aurora.
The Recon also offers a virtual shooting range that Dammen said has come in handy given that the county’s Stage 2 fire restrictions have barred police from going to the actual shooting range.
The vast majority of situations that Avon police and other Eagle County law enforcement personnel are put in do not require any use of force, Dammen said, but it is still important that they receive regular training in how to properly handle those situations.
“What I’m training them for is to handle the worst-case scenario,” Dammen said. “I intentionally create scenarios that have different types of outcomes that they aren’t going to see on a normal day-to-day basis, so they can be prepared for the event that something escalates more than what they normally do.”
Even in a community like Eagle County, Avon Deputy Chief of Police Coby Cosper said police officers and deputies have to dedicate some of their brain capacity to imagining what they would do in the worst possible outcome of each situation they enter, even down to seemingly benign traffic stops.
“We’re teaching them to handle encounters politely, respectfully … but in the back of our mind, 2% of our brain power is always thinking, ‘This is going to go bad, and this is what I’m going to do,’” Cosper said.
This is what police are charged with doing. They must have, locked away, the split-second instincts to save themselves and others when the use of force, or even deadly force, becomes necessary. But, until then, they must remain calm enough to employ the level-headed, unbiased situational analysis skills that allow good officers to de-escalate tense encounters.
Being able to do this effectively requires consistent training at all levels, Dammen said. He plans to have Avon police officers in the simulator for at least a half hour each week, and that includes all members of the force up to Cosper and Chief Greg Daly himself, Dammen said.
All training is guided by one core value: “The No. 1 best-case scenario is that it’s a peaceful resolution and no force ever has to be used,” Dammen said.
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org