Very few moments in an officer’s career will have a greater impact on them, their family and their department than the decision to use lethal force. Likewise, nothing an officer does during their career creates more potential liability for a department than when lethal force is used. With so much at stake during use-of-force encounters, it only makes sense that the most effective use of force training for officers should be a top priority for every department, regardless of size.
As a trainer myself, I think ideally the only thing that should separate training from real life is the trainee’s life not truly being in danger during training. It is my experience that the more realistic the training, the better the skills a trainee will possess for a real life encounter. In this article, I will explore two major styles of reality based training: force-on-force Simunition® training and judgmental use of force simulation training. My goal is not to draw conclusions, but to fairly and correctly analyze important aspects of the two training methods, broken down into two main categories: training value and costs.
Simunition® is a trademark for training ammunition produced by General Dynamics. Simunition® encompasses many types of training rounds, the best-known being the FX Marking Cartridge. The non-lethal rounds are designed to be fired through real firearms that have been converted with drop-in conversion kits. These kits do not permanently alter the weapon and do not need to be installed by an armorer. The conversion kit is designed to preclude duty rounds from inadvertently being chambered, reducing the risk for training accidents. Dedicated Simunition® weapons are another option as well. While this article is focused on Simunition®, much of the analysis would apply to paintball, airsoft or other forms of NLTA (non-lethal training ammunition).
Simulation training has previously encompassed single-screen systems with “shoot” or “don’t shoot” scenarios. However, the new standard of simulation training is the V-300™ by VirTra, a 300-degree, multi-screen simulator capable of mimicking real life situations. The weapons used in the 300-degree simulator are tetherless with an eye-safe laser via a drop-in conversion kit. The system registers any shots fired (or other use of force devices) and responds appropriately based on each particular use of force scenario. The recoil kits do not permanently alter the weapon and do not need to be installed by an armorer. These conversion kits were designed to preclude any round from inadver-tently being chambered to reduce the risk for training accidents; dedicated simulation weapons are available as well. The system registers any shots fired from the appropriate weapon (lethal or less lethal) and responds appropriately based on each particular use of force scenario. Recoil is simulated by using CO2 and is more realistic than the recoil of Simunition® rounds.
For the purpose of this article, I will be comparing the latest Simunition® training methods to the latest simulation training methods, namely a V-300™ simulator with tetherless recoil weapons and Threat-Fire™ (an electric impulse device used to provide instant feedback and significantly raises trainee’s stress levels).
The table below summarizes my analysis on the relative comparison between Simunition® and Simulation. The comments here are abbreviated; following this table is more in-depth information and description on each factor listed below.
In today’s world, police have a variety of tools at their disposal. Simulation and Simunitions-type training both allow officers to train with various tools, such as: verbal commands, OC spray, TASER®, baton and firearms. Training that involves choosing a level of force and also being able to incorporate de-escalation and escalation of that first decision, while under stress, is critical in lowering liability for departments and the trainee. In Simunition® training, everyone must wear protective gear that removes nearly all facial and non-verbal cues.
Simulation training has a real advantage as it can replicate subtle human non-verbal cues and precise visual nuances necessary to recreate a realistic situation. Two research studies indicate that on average we place 55% importance on body language, 38% importance on tone of voice and 7% importance on the words spoken (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967 and Mehrabrian & Ferris, 1967). If over 50% of decision making is based on non-verbal communication, such as body language, then it would naturally follow that high-fidelity simulation that closely replicates human realism is more effective than padded and shielded suspects in Simunition® training. Research also indicates that emphasis on realistic training will minimize differences between the training and performance contexts, thus enhancing the potential for knowledge and skill transfer (Kozlowski & DeShon, 2002). Don’t underestimate the training value of reading body language, eye movement and facial expressions of the role players – something only possible in simulation training and critical in a real life encounter.
When live acting occurs, the standard of training cannot be controlled. As a Simunition® instructor, I have run hundreds of scenarios, spent countless hours preparing to test my students with both short and long scenarios and it never fails, every scenario is different and my ‘script’ is never followed by others exactly as I had envisioned it would be. Whereas, simulation scenarios are pre-recorded and often have many well designed decision making moments that test the more complex department policies and do so the same each time (assuming the same branch options are selected).
A critical element of training is the debrief, where potential mistakes are reviewed and good decisions are pointed out. The debrief process is problematic with Simunition® as everyone has their own version of what happened. Simulation has the advantage of video recording the actions performed during training, since we know the general area where the trainee will be positioned. Then frame-by-frame debrief can be completed that can further increase the trainees’ skill level and understanding. The ability to replay and point-out non-verbal cues that experienced officers have learned over their careers to be “predictive behavior” can help new officers refine their skills faster, making them safer while taking less time – training success!
This type of debrief session can greatly enhance lessons learned by everyone in the room, not just the officers who performed in the simulator. In fact, in some agencies if they have two officers in the simulator, they also have two officers who are grading each officer during the simulation, and then they switch roles – the reviewers become the reviewed.
Simunition® has the advantage in this category as trainees can move throughout an actual environment, such as outdoors, office stairwells, elevators, etc. - so long as Simunition® rounds are allowed and safe to be fired at the location. Simulation training permits physical movement around the projected screens, but if the trainee wants more physical movement, then a series of individual simulators need to be setup in the environments.
It should be no surprise that a predator with hostile intent prefers to ambush their prey, making ambush training very important for police training. Simunition® training for ambushes is largely based on the physical environment and the coordination of role players. Until the 300-degree simulator, simulation training had no ability to prepare trainees for ambushes as a single-screen is physically not capable of ambush training due to the 60 degree field of view and everything happening in front of the trainee. Myself and many of my peers are concerned that single-screen simulator training might actually be reinforcing dangerous tactics by instilling in the trainees to focus only on what is directly in front of them after a use of force incident. In fact, the use of a single screen simulator often contradicts the need to reinforce scan and assess during the limited hands-on training time. However, the multi-screen 300-degree simulator can accurately mimic a wide variety of ambush situations, much like Simunition® training.
Simulators can train on a moment’s notice and can even operate 24/7, regardless of time of day or weather. The latest generation of simulators can calibrate and be ready to run scenarios in a matter of a few minutes.
As stated above Simunition® training requires personnel, planning, coordination and a location, which greatly restricts availability. If you ‘throw together’ a Simunition® training session, without proper planning, it is likely the participants will receive low quality training, if any training at all and you will significantly increase your department’s and your own personal liability.
The fact that each role-player will never act and/or respond the same way, running the same scenario multiple times, makes repeatability of a scenario for testing purposes a real problem for Simunitions®. One change in a phrase and/or action by the role-player and the scenario could have a significant outcome change. Simulation has prerecorded scenarios where all actors behaviors are stored, the scenario branches just have to be repeated if the trainer wants the same scenario for multiple trainees.
The upfront cost of a simulator is more than Simunition® conversion kits, protective gear and instructor certifications. Grants and/or asset forfeiture funds can be used to reduce or eliminate the cost of simulation equipment for some departments.
Simulation has minor recurring costs such as electricity and CO2 at a cost of approximately $.01 per four shots fired. The FX Marking Cartridge usually costs over $.45 per round and immediately begins degrading once the vacuum sealed bag of 500 has been opened. Once a bag is opened the rounds need to be fired or thrown away after a period of time (depends on temperature, humidity, etc.). I’m not the only trainer who wonders why perishable rounds must come in bags of 500, as it forces much higher recurring costs for Simunition® training. Also, protective gear needs to be maintained and often cleaned and sanitized. The weapons should be cleaned after each use, due to projectiles being smashed while loading and/or getting stuck in the barrel because of plastic build up caused when the round travels down the barrel. Also don’t forget, as part of recurring costs, to calculate each additional officers time needed for safety, role players and the clean-up of the casings and projectile markings left behind after Simunition® training.
Simulation requires only one trained operator investing time into the exercise planning and determining training objectives. Then any trainer, with knowledge of the scenarios to be run and training objectives, can maintain the same quality of training for each and every training session.
However, the training value provided by Simunition® is highly dependent on a group of trainers and role players investing time into the exercise planning, determining training objectives, and rehearsal for each Simunition® training session. There is significant organization required or otherwise Simunition® training can degrade into a paint-ball game reinforcing bad tactics and decision making. Per the Simunitions® Scenario Instructor and Safety Certification Course, Simunition® training for a simple scenario, requires a bare minimum of 4 people to include: Training Officer In Charge, Training Safety Officer, Role Player(s), and Student(s). In general, Simunition® training requires a tremendous amount of staff time – which is not free – and as stated above should be used as part of the recurring cost calculation.
Simunition® training uses projectiles and the use of any high-speed projectile is inherently dangerous, even with protective gear. Stories abound of a Simunition® round finding that one gap not covered by protective gear. In addition, sometimes officers will remove protective gear in the middle of scenarios because of stress, heat, auditory exclusion or other frustrations. Also, I have seen actors and/or students be pushed through walls, furniture broken or people injured by each other because of the high adrenaline levels and actors or trainees not responding appropriately to the stimulus – or overreacting.
Of course, Simunition® training can and does occur without any reported injury. I think it is fair to say that simulation training, with no high-speed projectiles and no running up and down stairs, has far lower potential for injury of personnel than Simunition® training.
Simunition® rounds that don’t impact on a participant will impact on whatever is in the shooters back drop, which can create minor property damage in the training area. Some of this can be mitigated by selecting a run-down site during pre-planning (of course a broken-down building can pose other safety concerns).
Due to this, some buildings or locations that officers might actually respond to in their jurisdictions are off limits to reality based training. This leaves officers without a “snap shot” of how to handle a situation in a particular environment until they are required to do it for real. Simulation training does not damage any property and scenarios can be filmed in these same buildings or locations giving your personnel the “snap shots” they need to possibly lower stress levels.
I have used the analogy of traffic stops before when explaining this. A very limited number of practice traffic stops were conducted in the academy. I can still remember the butterflies I had the first time I stopped a car. However, thirteen years later those butterflies were long gone. While not being complacent, I was more relaxed as I had so many “snap shots” of successful and unsuccessful outcomes to reference. General Omar Bradley stated, “I learned that good judgment comes from experience and that experience grows out of mistakes.”
In this article, I have proceeded to compare Simunition® training with simulation training on a V-300™. I began by examining several key training value items such as quality of: use of force training, debrief, freedom of movement, ambush training, pain penalty, availability, and repeatability of training. I then rated each of these categories individually on a 0 to 5 scale and the factors contributing to the rating were discussed at length.
Next, the costs of Simunition® and simulation were compared, including: initial cost, recurring costs, recurring staff time, safety of training, lack of damage, and liability. The costs section was rated in the same manner as the training value section and a table was presented that summarized the results.
The very best approach is to perform both Simunition® and simulation training, as each method of training has unique strengths and weaknesses. Based on my years of experience and the analysis presented in this article, a general rule of thumb (excluding specialty units such as SWAT) is a ratio of 20% Simunition® and 80% simulation training, so long as the simulator is the V-300™ or comparable model and includes a Threat-Fire™ electric return fire.
Kozlowski, S. W. J. & DeShon, R.P. (2002). A psychological fidelity approach to simulation-based training: theory, research, and principles. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.
Mehrabian, Albert; Ferris, Susan R. (1967). “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels”. Journal of Consulting Psychology 31 (3): 248–252. doi:10.1037/h0024648.
Mehrabian, Albert; Wiener, Morton (1967). “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 6 (1): 109–114. doi:10.1037/h0024532.
James Peters is considered one of the leading experts in the world on deadly force encounters and twice received the medal of valor, the highest award given by Scottsdale Police Department. Over the course of 13 years in law enforcement and a variety of high-risk assignments to include: undercover operations, SWAT, and fugitive apprehensions. Mr. Peters was called upon to use lethal force in 7 different situations, each time was ruled justified and ended with no loss of an officer’s life. James Peters also served as a SWAT training officer for 8 years and completed a long list of specialty law enforcement training, to include Simunition® Scenario Instructor and Safety Course. After retiring from law enforcement he is currently employed as a subject matter expert in the simulation industry.