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Law enforcement training: The complete guide

A law enforcement officer trains with a virtual reality headset and energy weapon.

Everything you need to know about training a modern and effective law enforcement agency

From the threat of violence to increasing public scrutiny, police officers face an enormous amount of stress on even a normal day. Add to that the possibility of a crisis situation or a use of force incident, and it’s no wonder many departments are struggling with the retention and recruitment of officers.

Law enforcement training is an essential aspect of equipping police officers with the tools they need to navigate the often complex and stressful job of modern policing. From use of force training to building empathy through VR-based community engagement content, modern law enforcement training can help close the retention gap and prepare officers for the evolving threats they face in their day-to-day patrols.

Use of force training

Police use of force is one of the most complicated aspects of law enforcement. According to the United States Bureau of Justice statistics, of the 61.5 million people who interacted with police in 2018, only 2% experienced the use of force. And yet those interactions, as few as they may be, can be the most stressful and impactful of a law enforcement officer’s career, not to mention the potentially tragic impact on the community.

In the United States, law enforcement is governed by local and state authorities, which is why there’s no uniform national standard for use of force training. The state of Connecticut recently mandated the first state-wide use of force training directive for all of its approximately 8,000 police officers. The state’s goal is to reduce use of force incidents, provide a single set of working policies and guidelines for every officer in the state and address the lack of a cohesive, state-wide directive on the use of force.

When looking to create a comprehensive law enforcement training program dealing with use of force, it’s important to start at the beginning. What is the use of force?

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, use of force is the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject. There are a variety of methods available to police for compelling compliance, starting with the mere presence of a police officer and, at the other end of the spectrum, deadly force.

In the wake of recent highly publicized use of force incidents, scrutiny of law enforcement is at an all-time high, resulting in lower morale and difficulty retaining officers and filling open positions. Updating training methods and arming officers with new techniques for de-escalation and cultural competence can help prepare officers for the new realities of policing.

Read The importance of use of force training for police officers more information about use of force training.

De-escalation techniques and modernizing police training programs

Challenges like the increased scrutiny of law enforcement and difficulty retaining and attracting officers can be dealt with, in part, by modernizing police law enforcement training programs. One aspect of police training that is receiving heightened attention in the modern era is de-escalation.

De-escalation refers to attempts to lower the intensity of a situation to avoid the use of force. A police officer training program with an emphasis on de-escalation can lead to fewer use of force events, a reduction in community complaints and better community outcomes.

One example of de-escalation in action comes from the police department in Providence, Rhode Island. Police found a young man on a porch attempting to cut a window screen with a knife. Responding officers issued verbal commands for the man to drop the knife, but he did not comply and instead began approaching the officers.

At this point, common sense and traditional training would suggest that the use of force would be justified, but these officers, specifically Lieutenant Gannon, had received de-escalation training aimed specifically at engaging with suspects who might be dealing with mental illness.

Instead of using force, Lt. Gannon picked up a chair and held it between himself and the approaching man while he attempted to talk to the man. After a 15-minute conversation, Gannon was able to convince the man to drop the knife.

“When I see something that seems off, I take an extra minute to think,” Lt. Gannon told media at the scene. “We had all the time in the world, so long as nobody was hurt. A lot of it is common sense and not jumping into action too quickly. If you can take the time, take it.”

The young man was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for mental illness. He was not charged with a crime.

Lt. Gannon displayed three essential principles of de-escalation:

  • Slow down: Many situations can be de-escalated by backing off or taking the time to assess properly.

  • Active listening: Hear what people are saying instead of waiting for your turn to speak. Sometimes angry people just want to be listened to.

  • Give them space: Sometimes, giving a subject space can help calm a situation down.

To learn more about techniques for modernizing police training, read How to modernize your police officer training program.

The benefits of VR for law enforcement training

Continuous training is essential for refreshing perishable skills and maintaining readiness, but many agencies struggle to find the time, space and resources required for consistent training. That’s where virtual reality (VR) comes in.

VR training employs high-definition headsets to fully immerse officers in training scenarios that replicate situations they may encounter in the line of duty, including use of force incidents. These scenarios, such as those provided by Axon VR, are developed in collaboration with law enforcement officers and employ innovative teaching methods to enhance recall and accelerate skill development.

Among the benefits of VR training are:

  • Saving time and money: Among the many challenges faced by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are budgeting and scheduling. VR addresses both by offering a training solution that is cost-effective and relatively fast. The cost-efficiency of VR includes reduced expenses related to cartridges, range time, travel, time away from field duties, and the need for dedicated training spaces. Further, VR training can be utilized by multiple officers in rapid succession. With some Community engagement training modules able to be completed in as little as 15 minutes, almost any officer can make time to access the training modules.

  • Improved crisis management skills: Much of the job of law enforcement falls into the category of crisis management – dealing with tense, unpredictable and evolving situations. Traditional training struggles to recreate the intensity of crisis scenarios. That’s where VR shines. Fully immersing officers in a realistic scenario allows them to exercise their crisis management skills in a safe, controlled — and realistic — environment.

  • Enhanced empathy: Community engagement training utilizes VR to replicate a variety of experiences based on real-world scenarios that can help police officers develop skills, empathy, and de-escalation tactics for interacting with community members, victims in crisis and individuals experiencing a mental health episode. This provides valuable perspective and gives them tools for dealing with situations they may encounter in the field.

VR is truly the future of law enforcement training. To learn more about why, read VR police training: 4 benefits and use cases for leveraging VR training tools.

Features to consider before buying VR platforms

Not all police VR training platforms are created equal. If you are looking to save your department time and money, enhance officer training or help officers develop empathy through VR, here are five features worth considering.

  • Research-based development: It takes experts to make expert content. Axon VR scenarios are created in consultation with law enforcement using over 275 hours of expert research, collaboration and review to develop of every VR scenario.

  • Comprehensive training modules: Law enforcement training should be more than just a trip to the range. Comprehensive training should address the multitude of scenarios a law enforcement officer will encounter in the line of duty. Axon VR scenarios cover use of force situations, TASER energy weapon deployments, engagement with community members experiencing mental health episodes and a variety of other high-stakes interactions a police officer may experience.

  • Tiered training: Effective training builds on past lessons that result in lasting learning. A quality VR platform will offer increasingly complex scenarios, allowing officers the chance to apply what they’ve learned and develop lasting critical thinking skills.

  • Detailed analytics: Tracking an individual’s progress over time helps training officers tailor their lessons to an officer’s precise needs. Detailed analytics provide for that, detailing an officer’s successes and outlining room for improvement.

  • Supplemental and ongoing education: Ongoing learning is essential for helping officers keep their skills sharp and their minds flexible. An effective VR law enforcement training platform will provide access to an extensive library of scenarios as well as supplemental lessons officers can complete between shifts.

For more insight into the best features of a VR law enforcement training platform, read VR police training software and simulators: 5 features to consider before buying.

Search and rescue training

The use cases for VR continue to multiply as the technology evolves. Search and rescue training, in particular, benefits from the many advantages of VR training.

From scouring a search area for survivors after natural disasters to finding hikers lost in the mountains, search and rescue is a valuable and life-saving discipline, but one that’s hard to train for. Especially when it comes to disaster response; it’s hard to stage a mock-up disaster – and expensive.

This is where VR training comes to the rescue. With VR, first responders can train on realistic scenarios based on real-world disasters and rescue scenarios.

Here are just a few examples of VR search and rescue training:

  • Search and rescue helicopter crew VR training lets personnel perform winch operations in realistic mock cabins. The crews repeat their drills in various simulated weather conditions until they become second nature.

  • Earthquake response VR training simulates post-disaster conditions in urban centers. It immerses trainees in realistic environments where they can learn to identify likely locations of survivors and then use specialized equipment to facilitate rescue.

  • Fire responder VR training gives participants a safe, repeatable way to train fundamentals while minimizing the need for costly and potentially dangerous real-life fire simulations.

VR training allows public safety departments to incorporate modern enhancements while practicing tried-and-true fundamentals. The controlled environment of VR training means first responders can train without fear or risk and do so much more inexpensively than in staged mock disasters.

Drones and data analytics have also helped agencies modernize their search and rescue operations. To learn more about how, read How modern technology has changed search and rescue training.

De-escalation training

When it comes to modern law enforcement training, few techniques are as impactful as de-escalation training. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, a recent change at the police department in Louisville, Kentucky emphasizing de-escalation techniques resulted in 28% fewer use of force incidents. This led to a dramatic reduction in citizen injuries by 26% and an even more dramatic reduction in officer injuries by 36%.

These statistics run counter to the common narrative that de-escalation might sacrifice the safety of police officers. In fact, de-escalation, through reducing use of force incidents and lowering the hostility of police encounters, actually makes officers safer.

Like search and rescue training, de-escalation training can benefit from the application of VR. VR training, like Axon VR, immerses officers in situations where they can interact with simulations of community members experiencing real-world stressors. This has benefits when dealing with mental health episodes and use of force incidents and allows officers to build muscle memory and retain critical thinking skills in a safe, controlled environment.

For more insights into de-escalation training and how it can help your agency, read De-escalation training: What it is and why elite agencies prioritize it.

De-escalation techniques

With the benefits of de-escalation being clear, it’s worth examining some of the modern de-escalation techniques that are contributing to reductions in use of force and injury.

  • Engage empathy: Officers arriving on a scene must take in a lot of information and make decisions quickly. This can make it possible to miss certain signs that a person they are dealing with may not be rational. People dealing with mental health episodes, for example, might be erratic. Engaging empathy can be a bridge to meeting someone on their terms and understanding how best to deal with them. Someone behaving angrily, for example, may respond to being heard, whereas responding to their anger with anger might escalate, not de-escalate their behavior.

  • Reserve judgment: It is also important to avoid judging someone who might be dealing with a crisis or a mental health episode. Their feelings might be overwhelming to them, and they might find it hard to express why. Judging a person in this state could lead to escalation, whereas calmly assessing the situation and responding with a level head can lead to de-escalation.

  • Maintain a calming presence: Officers should aim to keep their presence neutral, not argumentative or aggressive. This starts with body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. Resting with a hand on or near a firearm communicates a readiness to take violent action, whereas resting with hands on the vest communicates openness to dialogue. Focusing on keeping grounded and calm, avoiding strong emotional reactions and being mindful of word choices can also help defuse a stressful situation.

  • Set limits: Dealing with a person in crisis can be complicated. It helps to set limits, describe specific actions they can take and spell out the consequences of not taking those actions. Someone holding a weapon might pose a threat to themselves, others or the officers responding. Asking them to surrender the weapon and instructing them what will happen if they don’t is an effective first step toward de-escalation. It’s important to pause after setting a limit to allow the subject to consider what you have told them. But an officer must be prepared to follow through on the consequences they have described.

VR training can be an essential tool for practicing de-escalation techniques and assessing their outcomes. Officers can test their responses to different scenarios in real-time and receive valuable feedback in a safe, controlled environment. Trainers can see where an officer may have room for improvement and be able to prescribe further scenarios for training. Even more important, VR allows officers to experience stressful situations from the subject’s viewpoint, allowing them to build empathy for what a person might be experiencing.

Read 5 de-escalation techniques police officers should know for more de-escalation techniques and use cases.

More law enforcement training resources

Whatever your goals, whether you’re establishing a search and rescue program or exploring de-escalation training, Axon is here to help. Axon Academy has numerous useful instructional resources for law enforcement training with learnings informed by actual law enforcement officers. And Axon VR provides realistic, customizable scenarios officers can train with to develop critical thinking skills and build empathy. To learn more about how Axon can help your department with law enforcement training, contact your Axon representative or reach out to us today.