Armed with guns and Tasers, Teton County commissioners Natalia Macker and Greg Epstein were told to get ready to face a man who might have a gun.
“This is an auto burglary in progress,” Teton County Sgt. Trevor Aitken told them. “Your suspect is a white male, about 5-foot-8 in a gray shirt. Other officers are responding, too.”
In a dark room on a large wall, a video of a parking lot is projected.
Epstein and Macker are encouraged to interact with the virtual suspect.
The goal is to take control of the scene, keep the peace and, if possible, de-escalate the situation.
“Sir, show me your hands,” Epstein said with his gun in hand but pointed down. “Step away from the vehicle.”
The virtual man comes out from behind a car and wildly runs toward the commissioners, swinging his arms like he’s ready for a fight.
They don’t shoot because they can see his hands and he doesn’t have a gun. The video ends.
“These are real scenarios we face all the time,” Sheriff Matt Carr told them. “It’s a great training tool for our staff, and the idea isn’t to break people down but to build them up.”
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office invited commissioners to use the interactive simulation training, called Multiple Interactive Learning Objectives Range, better known as MILO Range in the law enforcement community, to gain perspective about training techniques.
“I think it is a great resource,” Macker said. “As a citizen, and frankly as a parent, knowing that we have law enforcement officers and personnel who are considering a variety of different scenarios that it’s not possible to get real-life experience in is reassuring, and it’s a great step.”
The simulator was purchased about five years ago by the Teton County Sheriff’s Auxiliary and features hundreds of scenarios.
“The commissioners sign off on the budget we put through every year, and when we ask for training aids they understand we aren’t just putting in for stuff we want,” Teton County sheriff’s Lt. Lloyd Funk said. “They are things we need and for our people to learn.”
The repetition creates muscle memory in first responders, Funk said, and the more they are reaching for tools on their belts, the more appropriate their use of force will be.
“A tool like this where you’re not actually at the range and expending ammunition and other things that cost the taxpayers money ... is invaluable,” Funk said.
MILO Range costs $30,000, Sgt. Aitken said. It’s used throughout the year for sheriff’s personnel, Jackson Police Department officers and detention officers. It’s stored in a room at the START bus barn. Aitken can also host trainings 24/7 to accommodate late-shift officers.
“Law enforcement has to have 40 hours of training every two years,” Funk said, “which I think is minimal for a peace officer to only have to have 40 hours. We get typically much more than that having access to something like this.”
Funk said the virtual exercises teach officers verbal and physical skills in situations that might not come around too often in Teton County.
“This way, when that situation does occur, we are more prepared for it,” Funk said.
During training Sgt. Aitken controls the scene. Trainees interact with the virtual characters and the outcome varies based on their reactions.
On Thursday the users experienced several scenarios, including a school shooting. In one instance the shooter surrendered. In the next the school resource officer was shot.
During a public intoxication call a drunken man surrendered. In the next scenario he pulled a knife.
Funk responded to a domestic dispute, a man claiming his wife struck him. The video, seen from the perspective of Funk — the first responder — shows a woman who’s visibly upset and sitting at a picnic table.
“Hello, ma’am, how are you?” Funk said. “Let me see your hands. Put your right hand up.”
The woman rambles and starts to come at Funk with her arms flailing. He doesn’t deploy a weapon and the video stops.
“I would block her and take her down with my hands,” Funk said. “That’s why this training tool is incredible. It’s practice, practice, practice. Your heart rate is still going up, but you know what to do.”