A $53,000 anonymous donation to East Hampton Town will fund a virtual firearms training system that allows police officers to role-play scenarios, helping them better understand when to de-escalate a situation or use force.
East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said the VirTra V-100 system features a single large screen, responds to voice commands and uses air pressure for simulated recoil to provide realistic scenarios. It also includes the ability to record trainings, so officers can critique their own actions following the exercise. Other entities that have used the program include the Dallas and San Francisco police departments as well as Mexican Department of State, according to company news release.
"It's really incredible," Sarlo told the town board during a Nov. 17 work session. "I sat through the presentation and demonstration that the representative came out and gave to us and to be honest with you, I was blown away."
Police departments across the nation have faced intense scrutiny surrounding the use of force, particularly since George Floyd died after then-Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in May. An analysis of Minnesota police departments by The Marshall Project published in May found departments there failed to set criteria on the use of force and de-escalation.
Town board members, who voted 5-0 during their Nov. 19 meeting to accept the donation, said they appreciated the program’s focus on de-escalation tactics considering the national conversation surrounding police brutality.
"It seems like it's a wonderful science-based technology that uses training scenarios, active shooter [scenarios], but even more importantly, uses de-escalation and judgmental use of force," Councilman David Lys said.
The town has begun hosting listening sessions as part of the state-mandated assessment of local police departments. Only one person from the public spoke at the first session in October and it was to praise the department when handling a situation involving the resident’s late wife who was suffering from mental health issues.
Having the facility on the South Fork means officers would not have to travel to points farther west or upstate for training, Sarlo noted. The town could also make the facility available to other East End departments.
East Hampton Town declined to release the donor’s identity or that of the individual who donated $307,000 in 2019 to purchase a tactical response vehicle. Sarlo said the donor’s identity would be given to town board members, a few high-ranking members of the department and the town Board of Ethics.
"We would never enter into an agreement with anyone who could potentially expect any type of preferential treatment in return," Sarlo said in an email. "We make it very clear to the donors that the only thing they can ever expect in return is a sincere thank you."
Sarlo said the equipment will cost $4,000 to $5,000 annually to maintain.
"I think, in this particular case, this equipment should help police officers quickly and accurately identify a variety of situations and be able to have the correct response," said Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc. "I think that's some of the most important tools that a police officer could achieve."
The simulator uses real actors and the scenarios unfold based on the officer’s actions.
VirTra offers virtual training equipment for both military and police.
The system will be housed at East Hampton police headquarters in Wainscott and may be available to other East End departments.