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Use-of-force simulator coming to Smithfield PD

Smithfield’s Town Council voted unanimously April 6 to authorize the purchase of a firearms training simulator for its police department.

The system, manufactured by VirTra, will allow officers to train with a variety of weapons without expending any live ammunition. It uses three ceiling-mounted projectors to create panoramic views of various use-of-force scenarios. When an officer squeezes the trigger, a converter attached his or her gun will fire a laser — not a bullet — at the screen, and a computer will calculate whether the officer hit the intended target.

According to Lt. James Phillips, who’s heading up the project for the department, the system’s $162,000 cost should be covered by the town’s remaining CARES Act money, as it will allow the department to conduct scenario-based training without needing to place officers in close quarters as role-players. With the simulator, the only personnel needed are an instructor and one or two officers participating in the training, who should be able to maintain adequate social distancing throughout the scenario.

It will also add a sense of realism compared to practicing on a firing range.

“When we go to the range, there’s no stress induced; this virtual training will put the officer in stressful situations,” said Police Chief Alonzo Howell.

The system won’t replace the need for a firing range entirely. Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services still requires all law enforcement officers to pass a firearms qualification exam annually using live ammunition. But the goal is to cut down on the amount of ammunition the department must buy.

“Ammunition prices have basically tripled over the past couple of years,” Phillips said. “A lot of the ammunition suppliers had to shut down their factories with COVID. The political climate, people are buying more firearms; they’re buying more ammunition. So it’s just there’s a big supply and demand problem right now.”

The department acquires its ammunition via Virginia’s state contract, currently spending about 25 cents per round. That cost is projected to rise to around $1 per round in the near future.

“Instead of having to spend 200 rounds of ammunition to train an officer and pass a qualification, we’re hoping that we can train them on the simulator and go verify and confirm their accuracy at the range by just using 50 rounds or 100 rounds,” Phillips said.

The simulator also comes equipped with various mental health and de-escalation scenarios, intended to teach officers when to rein in their use of force so incidents like the officer-involved deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020 can be avoided.

Louisville, Ky., police fatally shot Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician, last March while executing a “no-knock” raid at her residence, where officers are allowed to enter without warning or identifying themselves as law enforcement. To date, none of the officers involved have been charged with causing Taylor’s death.

Floyd, also Black, died in police custody on a Minneapolis street corner last May. Derek Chauvin, the now-fired officer charged with Floyd’s murder, was captured on video pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Both incidents sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

While a similar incident hasn’t happened recently in Smithfield, “I’d rather make the corrections in a training environment than have to defend them in court,” Howell said.

Phillips added that while the department’s interest in a simulator wasn’t driven directly based on the George Floyd incident, “we quickly realized that the two kind of do go hand in hand; we can do a lot of de-escalation, stressful scenarios, so that we can train our officers to work through those.”

Smithfield’s Town Council public safety committee had asked the department in March to consider partnering with the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office and Windsor Police Department to potentially split the cost of purchasing the simulator. But according to Phillips, that idea conflicts with the department’s plan to house the system in its support annex building further down South Church Street from police headquarters.

If access to that building, which the department uses to store evidence, were to be shared with other agencies, “potentially we could run into an issue with chain of custody for some of our larger evidence items,” Phillips said. “It’s not that we distrust the Sheriff’s Office; it’s just logistically it would be very difficult to work that out.”

But there’s still the possibility that Smithfield’s department could partner with other agencies during scheduled training sessions, making the system a regional asset. In the past, the department has rented Suffolk’s airport for driver training. By offering Suffolk use of Smithfield’s simulator, the two departments may be able to work out an arrangement to use each other’s facilities free of charge “and maybe eliminate some of the cost that we’ve had in the past,” Phillips said.

With the Town Council’s approval on record, Phillips anticipates the simulator could be installed and operational by August or September this year at the latest.