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Train Like You Mean It

Today's law enforcement training facilities are utilizing everything at their disposal, including mock environments and discarded materials, to make training as realistic as possible.

March 13, 2017  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Alliance Police Training Facility
Photo: Alliance Police Training Facility

Law enforcement officers will perform on the job they way they have trained. If they have only practiced shooting while standing still and aiming for a stationary target, they will be ill prepared to use cover and concealment and shoot a mobile armed assailant in the field.

Going through scenarios, with or without the latest technology, while using proven tactics in as realistic an environment as possible allows officers to test and hone the skills they need for the job before they step onto the street. Not every law enforcement agency has the resources to build a brand-new facility from the ground up. But there are many ways to upgrade department facilities and improve officers' training experiences to help them succeed.

Leveling Up

Taking full advantage of the technology and equipment available for law enforcement training, the New York Police Department has built a new state-of-the-art facility in Queens that puts its previous  New York City Police Academy to shame. The expansive building consists of six levels and can accommodate all new recruits as well as ongoing in-service training for all NYPD officers. Part of the space is taken up by a variety of classrooms tailored to teach specific disciplines as well as a separate large gymnasium. A full three levels are devoted to mock environments.

A courtroom is on level 6, public housing is on level 5, and on level 4 are storefronts and other buildings. The people involved in designing these mock environments spent time going to actual locations throughout New York City so they could recreate them as authentically as possible. This includes faithful reproductions of three distinctly different police precincts and a simulated city street complete with squad cars, lifelike trees, retail shops, a restaurant, a bank, and multiple apartments with realistic facades and fully furnished interiors.

"Every apartment is different for a reason," explains Inspector Mike McGrath, commanding officer of the Police Cadet Corps. "Some have backdoors, others don't. Some lead to other apartments." This gives officers experience in residences with different layouts, forcing them to consider the best strategies and tactics for each space during training scenarios. "It's a great training environment for us," McGrath says. "No more having to close your eyes and pretend."

For scenario-based training, an officer can start in a police car, get a call for service from instructors serving as dispatch on a working radio, and respond by walking into the realistic mock environment and interacting with role players. They can then go between the car, the "precinct," and the other buildings to fill out reports or investigate further. "Officers take segments on law, police procedure, and an HR section, and when you go to the mock environments and get a mock call for service, you integrate all of these different disciplines into one," McGrath says. "It's the culmination of all other silos. Outside of a mock environment, how do you that?"

Fellow officers can watch what's happening via CCTV while sitting in a mock precinct room and discussing the action with instructors. And this all takes place in a fully enclosed building, which allows for year-round training not affected by weather.

The Training Village

Following a similar concept, the newly renovated Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA) in London, OH, will feature a "training village" composed of three repurposed buildings that will be used together to mimic a city environment. One building is made to look like storefronts on a city street for realistic scenarios.

Mary Davis is the executive director of the Ohio Attorney General’s Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission, which oversees the state academy. A former patrol officer herself, she is looking forward to officers being able to experience this new interactive environment when the training village opens in May.

Judgmental force simulators are common for law enforcement training. But the new OPOTA facility will utilize a system of interactive simulator screens working together to enact one connected scenario across different buildings. For example, one person seen on one screen may run away, and the officer could pursue in the same direction. Then to continue the scenario, the officer could encounter a role player, or the same simulated bad guy on another screen. They would have to go outside and enter into another building, just like in a foot pursuit. "That's one of the major differences. It's not only going to include both the technology and live role players, but within different spaces and within different buildings," Davis says.

There will be three judgment simulator systems, including the MILO Range Theater 180-degree simulator that will be in a larger garage area so they can incorporate patrol vehicles and large training equipment like trip hazards and climbing walls. OPOTA also chose to add MILO Range's simulator options of piped in scents to enhance realism and biometric measurements to provide more information for debriefing and help officers recognize and manage stress levels.

Additional outdoor training areas will be available, including some that can be used to stand in for the parks found in many suburban and urban settings. "We also want to have cross streets where officers can pull up in training vehicles with working radios and practice getting out of their seat belts while responding to a call," Davis adds. These training areas are expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Getting Creative

Operating on a much smaller budget at a smaller agency, the Alliance (OH) Police Department's training facility still provides extensive training capabilities. The facility sits on a large plot of land next to a water treatment plant. It has two classrooms, a 50-yard pistol bay, 50-yard carbine bay, 300-yard range used for pistol rifle or precision rifle shooting, an 8,000-square-foot ballistic wall shoothouse with a catwalk, as well as entire houses where officers can practice all manner of tactics, and even an airplane simulator. All of this has required some ingenuity on the part of Det. Joe Weyer, who serves as fulltime training director of the Alliance Police Training Facility and is also the SRT commander for Alliance PD.

"It's been a collective effort getting it going," says Weyer. He's enlisted help, mostly in the form of donations, from local businesses, supportive citizens, law enforcement and training companies, and people who like to shoot. Businesses also purchase "banner ads," which aren't online, but actual physical banners bearing the companies' names that hang at the facility.

"In town, we have figured out a way to use solid structures that are vacant as part of our training facility," Weyer says. The staff has access to a fully furnished church, two fully furnished houses, and a factory where they can do crime scene training, enact scenarios with full SWAT teams using training munitions, and even practice assaults from helicopters. The city of Alliance and its citizens are extremely supportive and don't mind this training occurring so close to their homes and businesses. They see it as an important way for officers to prepare themselves and provide even better service to the town, Weyer says.

Weyer has sought out other economical ways to improve training equipment and facilities as well. He noticed that a door manufacturer in the area was discarding imperfect products for disposal, so he asked if he could use them for breaching exercises. "Instead of you destroying them, let us destroy them," he told the owner. Now, the Alliance Police Training Facility has access to as many doors as it needs, without worrying about cost. Weyer also created an airplane simulator for air marshals to train in by using discarded seats and other parts from the inside of an old airplane and building a fuselage himself. 

As a rule, the Alliance Police Training Facility teaches almost all of its classes to any interested shooters who are concealed carry certified, not just law enforcement. The revenue this brings in helps pay for the facility. Entire agencies also rent part or all of the facility to conduct their own training, as many training facilities do. Thanks to all of these efforts, the facility is self-sustaining.

Wireless, Paperless Future

Agencies are continually working to incorporate available technology into training, partly as a way to keep up with the world around us. The New York Police Department recognizes that cellphones are a way of life, and now issues one to every new recruit at the outset of their training. The phones are intended to be kept and used on the job until they need to be replaced with an upgraded model.

The current Academy class is the first to go completely paperless. All of the information on policies and procedures that used to take up a stack of paper inches high is now issued digitally. In the same vein, tactical training rooms in the NYPD's new facility are all outfitted with projectors and internet access. If instructors want to reference procedures, they can view the patrol guide online, for instance. There were no such capabilities in the old gymnasium where most training took place in the old training academy.

But this new technologically advanced world doesn't mean everything old goes out the window.

For the past five years, OPOTA has taken its portable judgment simulators across the state of Ohio and trained officers at different departments for free. Through the Simulator Training Equipment Program (STEP), the new training village will be used to teach an instructor-level course. The program will allow agencies in Ohio to train instructors from other local departments to put on their own simulator training. It will cover how to do it safely, write scenarios, and find existing venues in their local area. And OPOTA will provide all the necessary expensive equipment on loan, to make the training more accessible, which is one of the organization's main initiatives. "We're just taking that technology use to a higher level," Davis says. The newly redesigned OPOTA campus will also be available for all Ohio officers to train in, via on online registration process and subject to availability.

While expansive and high-tech facilities can be helpful, there are many ways in which instructors can improve training and set officers up for success, especially when it comes to judgment. Regardless of a training facility's bells and whistles, it's most important to help officers build confidence in their skills, Davis emphasizes. "We don't want to just teach them the facts, but teach them how to make good decisions."

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