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Virtual reality added to Breezy Point police training

New system offers safe way to practice responding to tense scenarios

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Breezy Point Mayor Angel Zierden joined the Breezy Point Police Department, Sourcewell representatives, members of press and others for a hands-on demonstration of a new virtual reality training tool for area police Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, at Breezy Point Police Department.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

BREEZY POINT — Breezy Point has become the hub for virtual reality based police training in central Minnesota.

Sgt. Josef Garcia, with Breezy Point Police Department, said Breezy Point is one of only three departments in Minnesota with a state-of-the-art virtual reality system, and the small resort city was only second in line behind the Rochester Police Department.

The great part about this system is it offers a really infinite number of scenarios we can practice in because the scenarios aren't pre-scripted
Josef Garcia

Dakota County also recently purchased a system.

"We acquired the Apex Officer X2 Virtual Reality system through Sourcewell in November of last year," Garcia said. "Since then we've been working on developing a curriculum and getting lesson plans approved through the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training Board."

The system provides officers with an interface to experience harrowing encounters with aggravated suspects, active shooters, individuals in mental health difficulties and especially opportunities for de-escalation.

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Officers wear a virtual reality headset with noise cancellation headphones that relay realistic sounds and the speech of the training officer.

A special backpack unit tracks their location within a boundary of up to 30 feet by 30 feet and special, paired tools simulate the use of flashlights, batons, guns, tasers and other items.

Use of a second set of equipment means two officers can cooperate in training at the same time.

Use of force and de-escalation is by far the most scrutinized aspect of the job and the Apex Officer system really helps us be able to decide what level of force to use, when to use it and what time to use it.
Kiel Rustad

While in the virtual world, an officer finds themselves placed in one of dozens of pre-rendered environments — including shopping centers, streets during traffic stops, schools, government buildings and more — where they interact with a suspect controlled by another officer who may emulate a person in distress, an aggressive shooter, a compliant motorist or any number of other individuals.

"This can focus on use of force decision making, but it allows officers to interact with people and really practice their communication and de-escalation skills in a variety of different scenarios," Garcia said.

In the past, the department had less complex ways to accomplish similar training. The most straightforward was a live training, where a large number of officers and others could interact with some serving the role of a suspect, and others serving as police officers.

This method is possibly the most difficult to arrange due to the number of officers involved. However, the suspects in such a training were capable of acting differently each time, and the real world environment meant this training may remain the best option when possible.

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During a demonstration of the Breezy Point Police Department's new virtual reality training equipment, one participant attempts to talk down an aggressive man with a bat experiencing a mental health crisis Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

"Really the most beneficial trainings are hands-on scenarios," said Kiel Rustad, Breezy Point police officer. "They're hard to orchestrate. It's a lot of moving parts to get people to come together and help all officers get the best training they can.

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“This was my first exposure to virtual reality training and I think it is good because it helps the officers get hands-on training to make split second decisions in modern police work," Rustad said.

The second option is screen training. Participants in this type of training stand in front of a large screen and interact with suspects projected there.

This training required far fewer working parts, but the scenarios and suspects were static, so there wasn't much variability to trainings.

"Screen training was essentially the last generation of decision making training for police officers," Garcia said. "It was on a flat screen. It was two dimensional. The officers stood in one place and scenarios were essentially pre-scripted. Year after year we went through the same scenarios and it became a little redundant."

Virtual reality offers the chance for training even when only two people are present, and the environments, behaviors and outcomes can vary almost as much as real life.

"The great part about this system is it offers a really infinite number of scenarios we can practice in because the scenarios aren't pre-scripted," Garcia said. "They're dictated by the trainer and the curriculum and lesson plan we are going by at that time.

The Breezy Point Police Department spent two days in March training with the Laser Shot firearm simulation program to help officers prepare for instances of escalating conflict.

“It's over 40 physical environments and within those, each one has a number of sub areas an officer can train in, so there's literally thousands of different locations an officer can train in," he said.

The system requires so few people and so little setup that officers may eventually choose to train during random intervals of free time.

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"Use of force and de-escalation is by far the most scrutinized aspect of the job and the Apex Officer system really helps us be able to decide what level of force to use, when to use it and what time to use it," said Rustad.

"I can just go into a room with my partner, put it up and be able to put a variety of different scenarios up and have to make a decision that, when you're on the street, it can be impactful to the lives of your suspects and innocent bystanders," he said.

This can focus on use of force decision making, but it allows officers to interact with people and really practice their communication and de-escalation skills in a variety of different scenarios.
Josef Garcia

The system came at a hefty price tag paid entirely through Sourcewell. As with other projects funded by Sourcewell, the Apex Officer system will be available for use by officers from other departments as well, as a part of the grant agreement.

"We have trained all the officers in Breezy Point Police Department and we'll be progressing to training the other officers in our partner agencies," Garcia said. "The equipment was purchased through the Sourcewell Community Impact funding, which provided us with $70,000 to purchase the equipment. No taxpayer money was used at all to purchase the equipment."

The other cities in the grant application include Pequot Lakes and Nisswa, though it will be available to other agencies throughout Region 5.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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