Roane-Jackson vocational students experience high-tech law enforcement simulations

Suzette Lowe
Special to Jackson Newspapers

When the former sheriff of Roane County, Todd Cole, decided to leave active law enforcement to teach at Roane-Jackson Technical Center, he did not expect to be on the cutting edge for training potential police officers.

But that is exactly where he found himself thanks to a West Virginia Department of Education Career and Technical Modernization Grant.

The program, Apex Officer, provides virtual reality simulations to give participants the opportunity to react in real-life situations.

“Our law enforcement program had not had an upgrade to its simulator since 2010,” explained Melissa Wilkinson, the careers and workplace instructor who wrote the $15,000 grant. “We saw this chance to really offer our students some on-the-job training inside the classroom. Thankfully, we were able to find the rest of the funding and now we have this top-notch simulation.”

Cole has each student in his law enforcement classes take one of two roles, the police officer or the dispatcher.

The officer relies heavily on the student at the dispatcher controls. That person feeds the information about the situation and controls the perpetrator’s actions.

“The goal is always to deescalate the incident,” Cole said. “We’ve only had the program for a couple of weeks so right now, that part is a little tough to get worked out. But they’ll learn.”

In one demonstration, Kinzie Litton oversaw the program as Blair Chase dealt with the suspect, with a possible weapon, who was intoxicated.

Blair Chase tries to calm his protagonist during an Apex Officer simulation.

“It was nerve wracking,” said Blair, an 11th-grade student. “It looks like a real person, and you don’t know what they’re going to do.”

In this case, the suspect died but not before stabbing Officer Chase twice.

For the dispatcher, there is a lot to track.

“I have to give my officer all that he needs to handle the situation,” Kinzie, also an 11th-grader, said. “I can put bystanders in and change up the scenario a bit too. I try to keep it realistic, but it’s also tense on my side.”

The Apex program keeps track of each step of the simulation which Cole said is very helpful in pointing out the good moves and ones that could have been better.

“Calming the situation down is always the goal, but the students get a real taste for situations that have a lot of danger involved,” he said.

There are a variety of scenarios from which to choose, including potential suicide, domestic violence and school settings. Various weapons can also be used.

In addition to the real-life situations, students also can try their shooting skills on a simulated target range.

Cole said the students are amazed at how realistic the simulations are.

“What they have to realize is that sometimes, as a police officer, you only have a few seconds to react,” Cole said. “It becomes more difficult every day to be a police officer. Every movement seems to be captured nowadays. The experience these kids are getting really does give them a taste for what they might see if they’re in law enforcement.”

Being able to pass his 32 years of knowledge in police work on to students is very rewarding for Cole.

“One of the toughest jobs a police officer has is writing up the criminal complaint,” Cole said. “It is so important to get all the details and the wording right.”

Cole reached out to Jackson County Magistrate Jackie Casto to review the complaints.

“Some of my kids have done a wonderful job,” Cole said. “Actually, some of them are doing better than the professionals.”

Offering the Apex Officer to city, county and state police officers is a goal of Cole, Wilkinson and Donald Sheppard, who is the technology director of the school.

“This is such a great resource,” Sheppard said. “We will be doing upgrades periodically and keeping everything moving forward. We have been fortunate to have found the funding for other simulators at the center, including a John Deere excavator in the carpentry program. We also have a new plasma cutter which does metal cutouts, along with 3-D printers.”

Officers from the sheriff’s department in Roane and Jackson counties have recently tried out the system.

Roane County Sheriff Brian Hickman said the program makes what is being taught in the classroom ‘real’ for the students.

Instructor Todd Cole suits up Roane County Sheriff Brian Hickman in preparation for a real-life simulation.

“I have to admit my heart rate went up,” Hickman said, “when I was in the simulated situation. I could hear the dispatcher just like in real life.”

Students saw Hickman keep his hand on his gun in anticipation of a violent move by the suspect. He was also in constant contact with the dispatcher describing the situation.

“I hope the kids clearly saw from my words to the dispatcher that the situation could change in a second,” Hickman said.

Cole said he would like to see elected officials try out the program to get a better perspective about the police force in their counties and state.

“They might be a little more understanding of requests for funding and the need for more officers,” he said.

For Wilkinson, who previously taught the law enforcement classes, the need for real-life training is important.

“But that’s what we are here at the Roane-Jackson,” she said. “A real-life, hands-on educational facility. We offer so many programs such as cosmetology, carpentry, welding, nursing, law enforcement and other areas of the judicial system. We are here for high school and adult students. There are a number of ways students can earn college credits also.”

Cole agreed, stressing that there are many opportunities for the students who graduate from the vocational technical school.

“Realistically, these students could be police officers in a year or two,” he said. “I was 20 years old when I started.”

For information about the programs offered by the Roane-Jackson Technical Center, call 304-372-7335.