SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A new program approved by Utah lawmakers creates a statewide center to train more police officers on how to defuse potentially deadly confrontations amid a national debate on police use of force.
The training will include a 360-degree virtual-reality simulator to practice dealing with high-pressure situations and lessons from prosecutors who investigate officer-involved shootings, Leo Lucey, chief of investigations with the Utah Attorney General's Office, said Tuesday.
"It's probably never been more critical or more important to give a more holistic training approach," Lucey said.
Salt Lake City became a flashpoint in the national conversation about use of force Feb. 27, when an officer shot and critically wounded a 17-year-old Somali refugee who they say refused to drop a metal stick being used to beat a man. The teen's family disputes that account, and the shooting sparked protests over police use of force.
The new $320,000-a-year training center still must be approved by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, but when up and running it would expand de-escalation training and bring in officers from smaller, more rural areas, where such resources are scarcer.
It comes as police across the United States rethink how they use force amid national outrage over police shootings. Last month, nearly 200 law enforcement leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. to review and discuss new guiding principles that would include asking officers to respond proportionally to a suspect, imagine the public's perception of their actions and communicate effectively.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, who led the effort to develop the principles, said getting interactive crisis training to more officers beyond specialized units at larger departments, is important to helping stave off dangerous encounters.
"I think departments in places like Utah and other places are recognizing the need for it and are responding and I think that is good," he said. As more departments adopt body cameras, that footage can also be used for training.
The new Utah training center will be run by the attorney general's office at one of the agency's facilities in Murray.
The virtual-reality simulator purchased by the office about a year ago lets officers run through high-pressure situations that are the hardest part of an officer's job, said Bountiful police chief Tom Ross, who's also president of the Utah Police Chiefs' Association.
"It's really about as close as we can get to experiencing some of the physical, mental conditions that an officer is going to face," Ross said. If the character fires a shot, for example, the officer actually feels a sting.
Officers also might deal with a virtual domestic call where someone pulls out a weapon, or a traffic stop that turns into a standoff.
After the officers run through the scenario, the trainers will critique what happened and walk them through ideas for defusing the confrontation without using force, including verbal skills, body position, and proximity, or how close the officer stands to a person, Lucey said.
His office already runs some training, but the new program will give them the funding to keep it going, expand it to a two-day session and bring in more officers.
The governor has until March 30 to sign off on the program.
Utah lawmakers also approved a plan to update the rules surrounding police body cameras during the session that ended Thursday. The proposal makes most footage public, and requires an officer to activate a camera before or during a traffic stop, serving of a search warrant, interview, or other encounter and keep filming until the interaction ends. It's also awaiting approval from the governor.