Santa Ana police officers will soon be required to learn high-speed pursuit tactics from the safety of a "virtual reality" driving simulator.
Every officer in the Santa Ana Police Department will be required to pass a four-hour course on the machines, which resemble flight simulators used to train pilots.
The department's two simulators, installed in the last week at a total cost of almost $200,000, operate like real police cruisers, with a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, a police radio--everything down to controls for a siren and police lights.
Officers will navigate the streets of a "virtual" city displayed on video screens surrounding the driver's seat. They will learn how to react to dozens of dangerous situations, from sudden flat tires to high-speed pursuits through busy downtown streets. Officers in the two simulators will be able to respond to the same mock emergency and practice coordinating their efforts via radio.
When officers hit something, the steering wheel will jerk out of place. If they spin out of control, the simulator will make it appear as if they are rolling in the vehicle.
Santa Ana is the first law enforcement agency in Orange County to use driving simulators. But a growing number of departments, including Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties' sheriff's departments, already require officers to train on them. Officers across the nation typically receive two days of training behind the wheel on a police academy course, Santa Ana police said.
Santa Ana Police Sgt. Chuck Deakins, who will train officers on the simulators, said instructors and officers will review mistakes on video, and discuss alternatives the officers could have used.
Training on the simulators will make high-speed pursuits "safer for the community, safer for the officers and safer for everyone involved," Deakins said.
The simulators are expected to help reduce accidents involving officers, Santa Ana Police Sgt. Raul Luna said.
Luna said the simulators will save the city money in the long run on accident-related lawsuits.
"It's a big move for any agency to put out this kind of money," Luna said. "But this investment is going to return tenfold to the city."
Department employees have been involved in 38 pursuits and 52 accidents this year, Luna said. Most of the accidents were fender-benders, he said.
Luna said he didn't recall any officers being seriously injured in an accident in the last several years. There have been two fatalities of bystanders caught in the middle of pursuits.