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Spokane Police look to upgrade virtual training system; council asks for community input

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 31, 2020

The Spokane Police Department hopes to upgrade its virtual training system and have asked the City Council to approve of the funds.  (Christopher Anderson)
The Spokane Police Department hopes to upgrade its virtual training system and have asked the City Council to approve of the funds. (Christopher Anderson)

The scene quickly turns deadly when a domestic violence suspect twists away from a police officer’s handcuffs and reaches for her gun.

As the two tussle on the ground, the officer’s partner fires at the suspect; both the suspect and officer collapse.

Luckily, it’s only an interactive virtual training scenario.

But the way the incident played out demonstrates the limitations of the Spokane Police Department’s aging software it uses primarily to train new officers, department leaders say.

The only way that domestic violence response could end, for example, was with an officer shooting.

The problem posed by the outdated software is that the vast majority of real-life Spokane Police calls don’t result in a use of force, but the scope of response in its virtual training is often narrow, coming down to “shoot or don’t shoot.”

The answer, the police department argues, is an upgrade to the training system from VirTra, the company that produces it, with new scenarios better-suited to modern policing.

“With the system that we have now, it doesn’t even allow us to update,” said Julie Humphreys, a police department spokeswoman. “What we’re purchasing is a five-year contract to receive new scenarios.”

But before they move ahead, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs is asking the police department to consider community input on the virtual scenarios used to train Spokane police officers. He hopes to form an advisory panel for that purpose.

Beggs said Monday that he does not want to decide what training the police department uses, but allow members of the community to have an advisory capacity as it considers which scenarios to integrate into training.

The conversation about training occurred during a meeting of the council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee on Monday. The Spokane Police Department is hoping to update its VirTra virtual training system through an expenditure and operating agreement that the City Council has to approve.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission has signed on, offering to cover the bulk of the system’s cost with its pool of funding from Initiative 940, a voter-approved effort that sought to increase de-escalation training for police officers.

Under a proposed agreement between Spokane Police and the training commission, the Spokane department would pay $33,716 for costs in the first year of the deal. Then, in years two through five, the training commission would reimburse Spokane Police for annual subscription fee of $25,975 per year.

According to VirtTra’s website, its “real-world, judgmental use of force training simulator has surreal scenarios that provide an in-depth look into human performance.” Although it’s virtual, the system uses real actors, which the company markets as a superior offering to other trainings reminiscent of a “video game.”

VirTra offers training on a variety of scenarios and objectives, including responding to an active shooter, de-escalating a situation and responding to a report of domestic violence.

Beggs said he’s been to several demonstrations of the training, and found that “the episodes I saw, a lot of them were problematic,” perpetuating stereotypes or inventing unrealistic and unlikely scenarios. He wants the community to suggest which of the VirTra videos is appropriate for police training.

A community review panel, he said, could give “input on things that they felt might be advancing or furthering stereotypes or being unproductive.”

“I was hoping that we could get that process figured out before we decided which episodes to buy or spend money on,” Beggs said.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said many of the scenarios in VirtTra’s trainings “are not pretty, and they’re not designed to be pretty.” Although he acknowledged the videos could be concerning to the community, he argued that it’s better to build an officer’s response to intense and chaotic situations in the training environment and “make decisions not based on emotions, but on training.”

The newer system, the department contends, also allows instructors greater flexibility and more “branches” in every scenario.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson questioned the inclusivity of the design process as VirTra crafts its training.

“What is their inclusivity of folks of color, and what are their biases?” Wilkerson asked.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm viewed a demonstration of the software about four years ago. She encouraged Meidl to provide the company with feedback.

“They need to change if they haven’t already,” Mumm said.

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