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Area Police Officers Get Training on VR System at Carl Sandburg College

GALESBURG — Knox County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Keith turned to his partner after they had just fired some rounds at a shooting range.

“Did you see the cartridge come out?” Keith asked. “It’s lying next to you there on the right.”

Except there was nothing but carpeted flooring in the area where Keith was pointing. What he was looking at came through a virtual reality headset as part of an Apex Officer Pro Training Simulator System. The state-of-the-art VR system is part of Carl Sandburg College’s criminal justice lab, where Keith and six other officers from three local law enforcement agencies recently received training on how to use it.

“It completely disengaged you from the room and turns you into something totally different,” Keith said, noting it was his first VR experience. “The cars, the license plates. Everything was very real.”

Keith said he felt so immersed in the space that he and his partner even stepped behind a virtual wall to talk to each other.

“We were like, ‘Why are we standing here?’” Keith said. “But it's that real. It's very, very cool.”

With the system, users can create fully customizable environments and scenarios that law enforcement officials may encounter. Officers can be placed into a host of locations such as city streets, alleyways, apartment complexes, night clubs, abandoned factories, suburban neighborhoods and more.

Subjects and witnesses of all shapes and sizes can be dropped into the situation, as can vehicles and other objects like weapons or bottles. Subjects can be made to be cooperative, under the influence or show signs of being mentally ill. Officers can be dispatched to calls ranging from a routine traffic stop to a domestic disturbance to a hostage situation. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

Users don a backpack, goggles, a headset and can carry a taser, pistol or rifle. Once dropped into the situation, they can get to work right away on honing their skills in scenarios they might encounter while on duty. Another person uses the system to operate how the subjects react and can communicate with the officers wearing the headset.

“Ultimately, it’s a big video game, except it's a virtual reality,” said Josh Kramer, an investigator with the Monmouth Police Department. “I didn't know what to expect. Obviously, I'd seen virtual reality training, I'd seen demos of it, but I’d never had it hands-on. Pretty much what you're going to encounter in the street is what you're going to encounter in this machine.”

Although the system allows users to carry and use weapons, much of the training emphasizes the use of de-escalation tactics by officers and reducing the need for greater levels of force.

“The de-escalation is huge,” Keith said. “It's nice that you go into this and don't always have to use force. You can talk to people and switch everything up. I think it's going to be very good for our department. It’s going to benefit all of us, honestly, because you guys could be involved in a call that we got training on from here.”

The training session was led by Dr. Christopher Barber, coordinator of Sandburg’s criminal justice program. Officers who went through the training are now certified to train officers in their own departments on how to use the system.

Being able to share this equipment with area departments and officers was one of the goals for Barber when Sandburg acquired the Apex system last year through a $100,000 grant from the Illinois Community College Board. Barber welcomed each of the officers in attendance and their departments to come in and use the system at any time for additional training.

“It makes for a nice, close family unit. We all work together. We get officers out here and they get training,” Barber said. “They also get to see students, and students get to see them in training. It promotes nothing but positivity.”

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