The commitment was officer safety first, and public safety first. The better informed (officers) are, the better trained they are, then they are going to make better decisions. —District Attorney Sim Gill
PARLEYS CANYON — The sounds of gunfire, sirens and people screaming are loud, and they sound real.
The gun the officer holds feels real. The pain that shoots through his body is real. The scenario the officer is looking at — and even the scenario happening behind him that he can't see — look real.
And the officers' emotions are real.
"Oh, I can guarantee my pulse rate is up," Unified police rangemaster Nick Roberts said after completing an intense scenario involving a mass shooting inside a school.
"I'm shaking," concurred Unified Assistant Chief Shane Hudson.
But the use of deadly force scenario the officers were put through Thursday was not real. It was just a training exercise.
In this case, it was what many law enforcers and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office consider the most lifelike training exercise available on the market today.
"This is the best available technology in the country. There isn't a better system in the country than this," District Attorney Sim Gill said.
On Thursday, Gill and the Unified Police Department unveiled the new VirTra V-300 LE simulator.
In the past, officers training in shoot/don't shoot scenarios typically were put on a range with their targets straight ahead of them. The VirTra machine involves screens that encircle an officer and project life-size images of people and places from all angles.
"(The old system) was good technology for its time, but now we have better technology. It takes them through a real-world scenario," Gill said. "This will change the paradigm of how we train officers for the next 15 to 20 years."
Gill said when he made a committment to public safety three years ago, his plan included making sure law enforcement had the best training available. He emphasized Thursday that he wasn't just giving law enforcers "lip service."
"The commitment was officer safety first, and public safety first," Gill said. "The better informed (officers) are, the better trained they are, then they are going to make better decisions."
In order to sharpen an officer's risk assessment skills, Gill said officers need "real-world application" in their training.
The district attorney's office used $500,000 in money and assets seized during law enforcement operations, such as drug busts, and purchased the $250,000 VirTra equipment. The remaining $250,000 was matched by the Salt Lake County Council and used to build a second story onto the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office gun range headquarters in Parleys Canyon. The total cost for the machine and building construction was about $750,000.
"That is an investment for every officer whose life is saved, every civilian whose life is saved. We will get that back and pay for it tenfold," Gill said.
During a demonstration Thursday, members of the Unified Police Department programmed the machine to go through various scenarios, including a woman being robbed at knife point at an ATM, a domestic violence call involving a gun, a mentally ill person harassing people at a park, and a school shooting.
The weapons used during the scenario are real but modified so they don't shoot bullets, while still having the same weight and feel of a regular police-issued service weapon. To make the scenario even more real, officers clip brick-size devices to their belts that will zap them with an electrical shock, similar to a Taser but with less intensity, if they are "shot" during a training exercise.
"This changes that whole game plan because you're making an officer use all of his senses, everything that he's been taught," Roberts said. "Everything from the academy to his field training to application, he has got to put it together or she has to put it together. This changes the whole dynamic to our training."
The person controlling the computer scenario has the ability to escalate or de-escalate a scenario based on the officer's reaction. The officer can use a gun, Taser, peppery spra or bring the intensity level of a situation down by talking.
Law enforcers are even able to download their own scenarios into the VirTra machine to visually make it look like anywhere in Utah. They can also play back a scenario in slow motion to show an offcier what he or she did or didn't do correctly, including showing them the accuracy of their shooting.
"Like in sports, you play like you practice. It's no different in law enforcement," Hudson said. "And so (having) the ability to come up here and go through a state-of-the-art machine that will put officers in a stressful, dangerous situation and give them that experience time and time again will help them as they unfortunately may encounter something like that on the road."
Even Hudson, a veteran law enforcer, admitted after running through a scenario that at one point he found himself too focused on one area and not completely aware of his total surroundings.
"Believe me, it will be tense. You will be stressed out," he said after going through a drill.
Officer-involved shootings have made big headlines in recent years in Utah. The most high-profile of those in Salt Lake County was the fatal shooting of Danielle Willard, 21, by former West Valley City police detective Shaun Cowley. Gill found that shooting to be unjustified.
But there will be times when an officer will need to use deadly force, Gill said.
"It's sometimes a very difficult and dangerous world out there, and you have to use lethal force," he said. "You want the officers to be sharp on their skills. You want to give them the best training so they come out of that safe and sound."
Likewise, Gill wants the public to understand what it's like for an officer to be in a situation that may require the use of deadly force. Gill, some of his attorneys and investigators who review officer-involved shootings, have already — or plan to — go through the scenarios themselves.
Gill also wants to hold citizens academies for the public to try it out, as well as the mayors and attorneys in the cities in Salt Lake County.2 comments on this story
"I want them to understand what the reality for our officers is and to feel the visceral emotion they sometimes have to go through," he said, "because I think it gives a better understanding to our citizens."
Gill said he believes with the new equipment, both law enforcers and residents will be safer because of better trained officers.
Currently, the facility is available for all law enforcement agencies in Salt Lake County to use. Roberts said he has already received requests from agencies outside of the county to use it. He said plans are being made so that can happen.