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Area law enforcement train using virtual technology

Minnesota West Law Enforcement student Frank White aims at criminals displayed virtually on the Milo Range. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)1 / 2
Minnesota West Community and Technical College Law Enforcement Program Coordinator Ronald Schwint (left) discusses a scenario with his law enforcement students following two student's split-second decisions. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — Several area law enforcement agencies are becoming less dependent on traditional-only training techniques and turning to the big screen.

Through virtual technology, future and current law enforcement professionals have countless scenarios at their fingertips to better prepare them for the field. Minnesota West Community and Technical College and the collaboration of the Windom Police Department, Cottonwood County Sheriff’s Office and Lakefield Police Department each own a form of the Milo Range — simulation technology projected on a big screen to teach use of force and tactical skills.

“It’s a decision-making tool,” said Windom Assistant Police Chief Cory Hillesheim.

The software is run off a laptop and projected onto a big screen. Depending on the type of the unit, various tools and weapons ranging from firearms, tasers and mace can be calibrated to the screen.

Minnesota West Law Enforcement Program Coordinator Ronald Schwint said the guns, which connect to the screen through infrared technology, are very accurate.

The college’s system — which was purchased in 2012 for $100,000 in federal grant money — came with 3,000 pre-loaded scenarios ranging from traffic stops, domestic calls, investigations, off-duty and other various calls students may encounter in a law enforcement career. The Windom, Cottonwood County Sheriff’s Office and Lakefield version — purchased a year ago for $15,000 — came with 350 pre-loaded scenarios.

Each has the capability to add more scenarios annually, and the college’s system allows students to create their own scenario. The scenarios can be altered by the instructor.

“If that person (in the simulation) is communicating very well, I can have them pull a gun, knife or run away,” Hillesheim said.

Following a scenario, instructors can review how officers reacted during a debrief. For Schwint’s class, considerably more time is spent debriefing the situation than student’s running through the exercise.

“That (debrief) is the big thing about these systems,” Schwint said.

Hillesheim agreed.

“If there is a mistake made we’d rather have it (on the simulation) than out on the real call,” he said. “Even if it’s a compliant-type scenario, we’ll talk about how (the officer) got that person to comply.”

While the technology can be expensive, so is quickly firing off 1,000 rounds on the normal shooting range, Schwint said.

“For a lot of departments, the biggest detriment (to shooting training) is the cost,” he said.

The simulation also allows users to practice target shooting, which Schwint said is very beneficial for students first learning proper form and technique.

While physically visiting the shooting range is a necessary training tool, the range has its limits, Cottonwood County Sheriff Chief Deputy James Jorgensen pointed out.

“It helps the guys with decision-making that we couldn’t get on the range,” he said. “Until you’re actually put into that type of situation, you don’t see it all.”

The trio of agencies decided to purchase the portable unit collaboratively to better afford the technology — a decision that was made around the time on-duty officer body cameras was a discussion topic both nationally and in Minnesota, said Lakefield Police Department Chief Andrew Konechne.

Konechne said he wasn’t too excited about the idea of body cameras, given a rural department’s limited resources and the record-keeping protocol with the collected data. He relates the body camera conversation with the decision to invest in the virtual technology.

“If you want better cops, you've got to give them better training,” Konechne said.

Despite which department owns the technology, both Minnesota West and Windom/CCSO/Lakefield allow other surrounding departments to utilize it as needed. Schwint said the college, which has the opportunity to receive grants both in the educational and law enforcement sectors, is happy to share its resources with others.

The Windom Police Department and Cottonwood County Sheriff’s Office will also be sharing their resource with Cottonwood County residents.

“This is in lieu of our citizen’s academy and is our community outreach program,” Hillesheim said.

Residents can register to try out the simulator during the department’s March 28 event by filling out an application. Applications may be found at the Cottonwood County Law Enforcement Center in Windom, or online at the police or sheriff’s office websites. A link may also be found on the Windom Police Department Facebook page.  

While that additional force won’t be gearing up in blue, area residents should walk away from the trial with a greater understanding of the decision-making law enforcement undergo daily.

Hillesheim said there are instances that occur throughout the nation — particularly those involving an officer-shooting — that require an immediate decision.

“We have a split-second to make a decision, but everyone has months to pick it apart,” he said.