Laconia students first in nation using VR to aid high school law enforcement training
Huot Center course helps students understand decision-making process
Once Huot Career and Technical Center student Cayden Krupnik secures the virtual reality headset over his eyes and gets oriented, a menu screen is projected on the board at the front of the classroom. The headset tracks the gaze of Krupnik as he stares at one of the menu items to select it.
Krupnik’s classmates – all seniors like him in their second year of the law enforcement course at the Huot Center in Laconia – the board, intently taking notes. They see what he sees, but Krupnik is in control of the simulation.
The screen alights on a scene of a man beating an SUV with a crowbar. Krupnik is a solo officer responding to the call. Every few seconds, the simulation pauses, and he has a choice between a handful of actions: continue trying to talk, draw your taser or draw your firearm. After a few attempts at interrupting the man, he turns toward the officer and gets closer, refusing to cooperate.
As the man gets threateningly close, Krupnik chooses to draw and then fire his taser. It hits the man, but does not incapacitate him. He fires it again, this time with success. The simulation shows the officer placing the man in handcuffs.
These students are the first high schoolers in the country, to the district’s knowledge, to implement VR law enforcement simulation technology in the classroom. Funded by a Perkins Grant, the Huot gained access to this tool in December, almost immediately after it was first used by the Gilford and Laconia police departments. The system is created by Axon, more commonly known for making tasers.
The technology poses distinct benefits to young students compared to law enforcement professionals, and is just one of the immersive experiences elevating the center’s law enforcement curriculum, according to instructor Bill Clary, a retired captain of the Laconia Police Department.
The first year of the course focuses on bedrock knowledge, starting with the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and includes key subjects such as the criminal code, motor vehicle laws, the appeal process, the state use of force law, the history of American police work and law enforcement ethics. The second year becomes much more hands-on. Students learn how to operate handcuffs, perform a traffic stop, file police reports, juggle multiple calls and, through the simulations, navigate real-life scenarios and experience the consequences of key decisions.
‘Two and two together’
While law enforcement professionals are equipped with their own experience, degrees, training and the known policies of their department as they use VR, these students mainly rely on their gut.
“Part of it is just learning to make decisions,” Clary said.
As Krupnik removes the headset, Clary asks students questions about what they included in their notes. Hannah Donovan is tapped to perform the simulation again, choosing different actions this time.
At the scene, Donovan also begins by trying to engage with the man. More quickly, she instead draws her firearm, but continues trying to get the man to put down his weapon and talk. She learns that the car he is destroying belongs to his wife, who recently told him she was leaving. After some time, he does as Donovan asks, and she is able to make an arrest without using force.
Clary leads the students through a debrief. They discuss the importance of the officer having no backup: most law enforcement agencies, Clary emphasizes, have policies that require officers to have backup with a firearm drawn in order for them to use a taser. Krupnik’s action, in a real setting, would have likely violated his agency’s policies.
Students run through another module titled “peer intervention,” in which the student’s partner, while responding to a noise complaint, is noticeably irritable and risks escalating the situation, and the student must contain the interaction. Other modules students can choose from include officer in crisis, domestic violence, shoplifter and more. New scenarios are periodically added to the software.
The simulations take the hands-on and book learning students get and render it real. “They put two and two together,” Clary said.
“Even though I just watched Cayden play it through, you still feel that pressure,” Donovan said. “I knew he got close,” she said, referencing the man with the crowbar, “but it seemed way closer when I was the one doing it.”
Despite the pressure of being in command, Donovan continued, “I like that it lets you choose all the wrong options.” Students learn by — in a dissectible, replayable process — everything that can happen when an officer makes the wrong call.
Clary said in an interview he is still folding VR into his curriculum at the Huot, where he has been an instructor since January 2016. In many ways, from righting technical difficulties to working through new scenarios, he is learning its benefits alongside his pupils.
About 30 percent to 40 percent of the students who take his course have expressed an intent to follow some kind of law enforcement path, Clary estimated. Tauheeda Abdallah, for example, has always wanted to serve as an officer and is especially interested in investigative work. Others take it to decide whether that might be right for them. Paige McCarthy was previously on the fence between veterinary and law enforcement pursuits. This course, she said, confirmed that she wants to work in a police canine unit.
The course will culminate with students interning with a local agency involved with the law enforcement process — from police departments to the county attorney’s office to Fish and Game to corrections. Clary tries to match each student’s internship with their passions.
The benefits of the simulations’ immersion, McCarthy said, go beyond making high-stakes decisions and help students to visualize the complete spectrum of what it really means to work in the field.
“They really draw me in,” McCarthy said. She liked the scenarios that weren’t just about making arrests but about helping a member of the community. “They make you feel, like, ‘I feel her pain.’”
“I feel like I’m actually there, an actual officer making decisions.”
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