OPELIKA, Ala. (WRBL) – Virtual reality is helping one east Alabama law enforcement agency train its officers to react better in high-stress calls to keep themselves and the community safe.

Opelika training officer Chase Higgins is similar to a virtual puppet master. With his headset, keyboard, and computer mouse, Higgins skillfully simulates stressful situations similar to calls law enforcement encounters daily. From angry drivers, hostage situations, and mental crisis calls, Apex Virtual training is an invaluable tool.

“We can base our training on officers’ needs. So if we want to see how officer reacts in a mental health crisis or critical incident, we can simulate that in a virtual environment, or if we want to see how they behave dealing with someone with a mental crisis, we can put them in that scenario and see how they communicate and how they deescalate,” said Higgins.

The VR system is a live conversation focused on an interaction between the officer and an avatar citizen role played by Officer Higgins.

“There is no fixed route that this will happen or that is going happen. There is no set storyline branch or anything. What I tell people is I am going to play on a whim. I will give them a scenario and bones of the situation, and I will play based on you,” said Higgins.

Citizens Police Academy participants also use the simulator to get a feel for the split-second decisions an officer has to make.

“It was difficult for me to do, and I have a better appreciation of what law enforcement does.” said participant Denise Rogers.

Higgins agrees the most potent weapon an officer has is their ability to communicate and bring a situation to a peaceful resolution effectively. Practice makes perfect. Virtual training helps protect our real-world community.

“I am so thankful we are huge proponents of that here in the Opelika Police Department. This is not a shoot or don’t shoot simulation. I see this helping train our officers in crisis intervention. We are lucky to partner with East Alabama Mental Health and East Alabama Medical Center to make sure officers are helping people in mental crisis and that we are not adding additional stress to them,” said Higgins.

After each simulation, the participant and training officers meet to discuss what went well, what they can improve on, and options based on the scenario. If you want to try the virtual reality program, you can contact the Opelika Police Department and sign up for the Citizens Police Academy.