Norfolk, Va. - NewsChannel 3’s Mike Mather had the opportunity to try out a new, state-of-the-art, virtual-reality police training room that just opened in Norfolk.
During the simulation, he was “killed” right when a virtual gunman appeared to his left.
An electric prod on his hip jolted him, simulating the first bullet. By the time he spotted the shooter and pointed his pistol, it was too late.
This scenario was based on a real encounter in Tempe, Arizona, where two officers died.
It's a far cry from the single-screen, shoot-don't shoot training that was around when he went through a police academy years ago.
This one wraps the officers. The floor rattles with sound, and the officers use the same weapons they would on the street, just modified for the screen.
But unlike the earlier generations of video trainers, Police Chief Mike Goldsmith says this one tests reasoning as much as reaction.
“Not all of the scenarios that we are going to show these officers end up with use of force. Many times they will end up with getting the officer to talk,” says Chief Goldsmith.
Goldsmith says this purchase of almost $300,000 is not in response to any specific incident. But without doubt, police judgment is under scrutiny in Norfolk and across the country.
Prosecutors said Norfolk officers were justified in a 2013 fatal shooting at a bank drive-thru, even though one officer also shot his partner.
Still, the city paid the driver's family more than $160,000 to address claims of poor judgment and excessive force. And in the shooting of a mentally ill man named David Latham last year, a grand jury said Officer Michael Edington went too far. He's charged with manslaughter.
“What we`re looking for is an exercise in judgment,” says Chief Goldsmith.
Outside the building, SWAT candidates blast turning targets. This is how police learn marksmanship. But now they can transition to a training room that values words as much as weapons.
Controllers at a computer can divert the action any number of ways based on the officer's response. They can have the characters ramp up, or back down. A second scenario puts all that to the test.
Mike Mather was sent to what seemed like an ordinary domestic squabble.
It was unlike anything he’s experienced. His heart was racing and his neck was tingling. Even experienced officers like Corporal Melinda Wray say what unfolds around them spikes their adrenaline.
“You feel as though you are literally walking through the hallway of a school. You get not only immersed in the screen and the scenario, but you feel like it is a real live situation,” says Wray.
On this day, police also opened the screens to community leaders like Nathaniel Riggins. He admits it was a little overwhelming.
“I wasn`t up for it. I wasn`t up for the scenarios. I wasn`t up for what might happen. I was just a regular citizen with a weapon and I did the wrong thing,” says Riggins.
Riggins shot a virtual character in the back while he was trying to escape.
It's not the day's only mistake. Another participant shot the homeowner who called for help and then gets shot by the bad guy.
All officers will take this training where, if they make mistakes, no one gets hurt.
For the citizens who tried it this day, it's a reminder that second-guessing is easy, but the split-second decisions are hard.
“We can say what we want to, but we do not know police work,” says Riggins.