The Los Alamos Reporter prepares to participate in a virtual reality scenario wearing the LAPD’s Apex Officer goggles and backpack with assistance from Sgt. Chris Ross, left, and Cpl. John Harris. Photo by Cpl. Samantha Terrazas/LAPD
Trainers for the LAPD’s Apex Officer system are, from left, Cpl. John Harris, Cpl. Samantha Terrazas and Sgt. Chris Ross. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
If you can imagine a law enforcement training simulator that is both futuristic and realistic, making it the closest a police officer can be to actually being out on patrol answering to a call, that is the Apex Officer, a new system being used by Los Alamos Police Department.
At a recent press event, the Los Alamos Reporter got to don the Apex Officer equipment and experience the virtual reality equipment system first hand while going through a few of the infinite number of scenarios available for training. On hand were the system’s trainers, Sgt. Chris Ross, Cpl. John Harris and Cpl. Samantha Terrazas.
“This is a tool to exercise the officer’s mind, which is the most powerful tool an officer has. It puts them into a virtual reality system where it’s safe and they can go through the use of force, de-escalation, escalation and crisis intervention and see how they can be successful or see how the situation can be made worse by their actions,” Ross said.
He said the Apex Officer system will benefit the community and any interactions officers will have.
“As a platform and training system, it’s light years above anything else that’s been available for law enforcement. The best thing is we can put the same officer in the same scenario and it will never be exactly the same. There’s an infinite number of possibilities because we have the free play capability of this system. It gives the benefit of what could take years of on the job experience,” Ross said.
He said an officer can have a call on the street that they feel was weird and the Department can run through that exact call and see what officers’ responses are so that next time they have a similar call they are prepared.
“The best thing about this system is unlike any other training system that you see is as the controller, you are able to control and manipulate what the suspect is doing based off the officer’s action. So you can immediately change their facial expressions, their body language, you can make them armed, you can disarm them. You can make them go all the way to the handcuffing position. You can do everything that you need to do or you can make them attack the officer. We get that free play capability unlike any other system. Most systems are very scripted,” Ross said.
LAPD Cpl. Samantha Terrazas during a virtual reality scenario using the Apex Officer training system. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Acquiring the system started out when Chief Dino Sgambellone forwarded an email last summer to Ross from the International Police Chiefs Association suggesting that LAPD look into the system.
“I started doing some research. The company had some demos, videos and news stories from departments in California and Massachusetts. We reached out to those departments. They gave us nothing but rave reviews for it and we started looking at it a little more and did a demonstration with the company over Zoom and thought it was pretty amazing. Once we got it into our hands at the beginning of January and began to play with it, it took us all by surprise with how sophisticated it is and how the technology makes it seem so real,” Ross said.
The computer screen shows some of the options available to the trainer for a grocery store scenario. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
The system cost the Department some $80,000. It is expected to pay for itself with what it will save in outside training and travel costs as time goes on. It’s availability at the Department means that trainers have been able to come in on night shift to accommodate training for those officers as needed.
Harris said the Department needed a platform that was going to give more training scenarios than the FATs system formerly used by LAPD which provided photorealistic 3D indoor and outdoor terrain.
“It was a static system and you couldn’t move around and it was very scripted. It was an either shoot or don’t shoot scenario. It didn’t have the capabilities to go through and interact. This fills the gap. You are able to go through and move around in your environment,” Harris said.
LAPD Cpl. Samantha Terrazas in virtual reality gear during a recent demo of the new Apex Officer system. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Harris set the Los Alamos Reporter up with the backpack unit for the system and the virtual reality goggles. The space to move around in virtually can go up to 30 feet square but is set in the training room at 15.
“You can move around anywhere with that virtual reality anywhere in this window. Once you’re in the environment, you look up, you look down, and turn around. You hear the background noise. If you’re near the highway you can hear traffic noise. The suspect is going to move around in this environment,” he said.
The scenario is controlled by the computer operator – in this case, Harris.
“You can have the suspect not be armed at first or they could be. It depends on what kind of call you’re going to, what kind of scenario we want to go through and build – whether it’s an active shooter scenario, domestic violence, mental illness, a crisis, a traffic stop. We have all of this at our disposal,” he said.
Ross said the possibilities are endless.
Some of the locations that may be selected for training scenarios. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
“It’s based off 100 different suspects that we can plug in and they are all different sizes, races and genders. We can work on things like implicit bias. We can see if an officer does have a bias. We can work for example whether a smaller build officer has a different response to a larger built suspect and we can understand where the officer is coming from. Or we can see that an officer is a little too aggressive in a response and have them tone it down or if they were not aggressive, we can tell them they could have taken a different tone,” Ross said.
LAPD Cpl. John Harris works a scenario on his computer screen based on a scene at a grocery store for Cpl. Samantha Terrazas. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Harris said the system gives the trainer the ability to stop the scenario right then and there to go through and give feedback.
“We can stop the scenario. We can do a hot wash with it. We can say these are the good aspects of it, this is what you did right, and this is what we need to work on, and this is what escalated this. That gives the officer immediate feedback for training right there. And we can go through and run it again in exactly the same way. If you’re in a position of disadvantage, we can go through and address that. We can look at the environment and I can communicate with the officer in virtual reality. I can act as dispatch, I can act as the suspect, I can give him verbal commands. It’s endless,” Harris said.
The Apex Officer system can actually be operated with a four-officer option, Terrazas said. LAPD has the two-officer version because with the needs and the size of the Department, the majority of calls are responded to by two officers. Terrazas said in the two-officer version, a silhouette of the second officer’s head can be seen so that the first officer can determine where they are in the scene and they won’t be bumping into each other.
Terrazas said the more time a trainee spends in the system, the more real the people look. In fact the Los Alamos Reporter felt the “reality” of the people immediately and could feel her heartbeat rise and her breathing shorten as the virtual threat increased in intensity in each of the scenarios she participated in. In one scenario, the woman was wearing a bulletproof vest which was only apparent when she came really close so when she didn’t go down the first time she was “shot” and a follow-up shot was required.
Terrazas said it makes officer think too because even with our pepper spray and stuff, some people are not even going to go down. In the winter time, a taser often doesn’t work because of thick jackets. An officer may have a tool but it may not work. For example, a person may have been exposed to pepper spray their whole life so it won’t work on them.
The system allows two weapons at a time, so that could be a handgun and a taser, or a rifle and something else.
“It just depends on what we’re looking for. If we’re trying to build a scenario where it should be one of these two, then that’s what we’re going to give them,” Ross said.
A large part of the training involves doing a whole crisis intervention scenario.
“As long as you’re saying the right words and the right phrases that we’ve been trained to say, and you’re de-escalating the situation, we’ll start showing you the compliance. We’ll start giving you that feedback and you start understanding you’re doing the right thing,” Ross said.
Terrazas used the example of a person in an alleyway with a broken bottle in her scenario.
“I just kept telling her, ‘For the safety of both of us can you just drop the bottle and let’s talk,’ and she complied and dropped the bottle,” Terrazas said.
In one of the Reporter’s scenarios, a woman in a club appeared suicidal and was waving a gun. As the Reporter tried to de-escalate the situation, Harris, who was controlling the scene from a computer, sent in several additional people who were moving quickly throughout the area, thereby changing the dynamic completely.
Officers get to watch each other going through the scenarios and Harris said each individual officer is going to have their own style but a lot can be learned by just listening in. The Reporter got to watch Terrazas in a scenario where dispatch called her out to a situation at a grocery store where a man was swinging a baseball bat.
For a new officer, the training system gives an opportunity to for training without having them thrown into a real-life situation right off the bat.
“This is the closest we can be without actually being out there doing it. It expose them to something that’s going to get their heart rate up, that’s going to get a little bit of blood pressure going, but it exposes them here in the training room so that they know kind of what they’re getting into,” Harris said. “No situation is going to be absolutely set in stone. They’re going to be dynamic. The totality of circumstances is going to dictate what you’re going to do in the long run but this at least gives them something basic to work from.”
Editor’s note: Thank you Sgt. Chris Ross, Cpl. John Harris, Cpl. Samantha Terrazas and Cmdr. Preston Ballew for facilitating the Los Alamos Reporter’s hands-on participation in this event.