During a demonstration of the Portland Police Department’s new virtual reality program, Apex Officer, Portland patrol Officer Dan Knight interacts with a video character experiencing a mental health crisis. The program, which is visible on the projection screen in the background, puts police in various situations to train them for real-world encounters. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Watching the recording back, the man looks like a mediocre cartoon. But when he was standing in front of me, expression blank, gun in hand, he felt real enough.

“Police!” I shouted as I raised my own fake handgun into a shooting position. “Put the gun down!”

For a moment, he stood frozen in the virtual sunshine. Then the first bullet hit me.

Police say it’s impossible to truly simulate what it feels like to be in the kind of life-or-death situation that can prompt law enforcement officers to use deadly force against the civilians they are sworn to protect. But Portland police leaders hope the department’s new virtual reality training program will teach officers to defuse dangerous situations before they get violent – and to react with force quickly when those tactics fail.

“Things happen like this,” training Sgt. Dan Hayden said with a snap of his fingers during a recent demonstration of the department’s Apex Officer program. “We want people to be able to go to a high-stress environment and still make good decisions. But to do that, you have to stress (them) over and over and over again.”

The $67,500 software, built by a Las Vegas company and funded through a federal grant, is the cutting edge of law enforcement technology. The pulsing blue lights on the backpack powering the system’s headset give the gear a sheen of Silicon Valley sleekness. But according to experts, it’s just the latest in a long line of tools aimed at addressing a challenge that police have faced for decades: How can departments prepare officers for a situation for which there’s no preparing?


Police violence in America has become a flashpoint in recent years and has had broad implications within the law enforcement industry. Several Maine police leaders have told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram that negative public perception of law enforcement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests in 2020 has been a key contributor to the ongoing staffing shortage in their departments.

Officers feel like they are held to an impossible standard: fire their weapons in a high-stakes situation and the media could portray them as the next face of police brutality, but back down from using force and they put their own lives in danger. Or, if they walk away from a high-risk situation altogether – like a Sagadahoc deputy did a month before the Lewiston shooting – they risk becoming known as the officer who didn’t do enough to stop a mass shooter.

Citing ongoing Maine attorney general investigations, Portland police leaders almost always refuse to answer questions about specific use-of-force incidents, like the fatal police shooting of 42-year-old Kyle Desmarais on Interstate 295 in December. (The AG’s office hasn’t made a ruling on that case yet, but video of the shooting shows Desmaris pointing a gun at officers before shots were fired).

But speaking broadly, department leaders say the public misunderstands the biomechanical realities that require officers to make lightning-fast decisions about whether they need to fire their weapon.

To demonstrate, they strapped me into their virtual reality training system and gave me simple instructions: point my gun at the armed man standing in front of me and pull the trigger as soon as he moved to attack me.

Portland police Officer Dan Knight draws an inert pistol and fires during a demonstration of the department’s new virtual reality program, while Lt. Jake Titcomb spots him. In this scenario, Knight was reacting to an imminent attack by a bat-wielding man in the hallway of an apartment complex. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Even though my raised gun gave me a head start, my virtual foe managed to shoot me at almost exactly the same instant as I shot him. According to Lt. Jake Titcomb, that’s because it takes at least a quarter of a second for the human brain to react to the sight of a gunman raising his weapon, even when it knows the attack is coming. Actually assessing whether someone is a threat takes at least another quarter of a second, and pulling a gun’s trigger adds another six hundredths.


All told, the math is stark: If someone decides to shoot at police, the officer won’t be able to react quickly enough to get the first shot off.

“This isn’t a subjective thing,” said Titcomb, who cited academic research on reaction time. “This is a human performance issue.”


When patrol Officer Dan Knight donned the headset and arrived at the site of a reported domestic disturbance on Chadwick Street, he found a visibly upset man standing in a driveway. The scene was just like countless others that Knight has encountered to in his 35 years on Portland’s force – except that both the driveway and the man standing in it were computer-generated.

When projected onto a flat screen, the software’s visuals can’t compete with those found in modern animated films or the latest video games. But to those wearing the system’s virtual reality goggles and headphones, the simulation feels surprisingly lifelike – real enough that wearers regularly try to step over virtual curbs or brace themselves against walls that aren’t really there.

Without a spotter to gently nudge a user back within the 30-by-30-foot space at Portland police headquarters on Middle Street, a user immersed in the virtual world could easily crash into an obstacle in the real one.


“I was kind of expecting a second-rate video game or something like that,” Knight said after finishing the simulation. “But it feels very real.”

Back in the system, the officer approached the scenario like he would on the street. The computerized man, dressed in a green hoodie and jeans, introduced himself as “Dan” and explained that his wife was having an affair with a neighbor.

“What I really want you to do is just shoot me in the face,” he told Knight while reaching into his pocket as if to pull out a weapon. “Shoot me in the face. Put me out of my misery.”

The aggression was sudden and surprising. According to Hayden, the training officer, that was by design.

A projection screen demonstrates a new virtual reality simulator program, Apex Officer, that puts police in various situations to help train them for real-world encounters. In this panel, a trainer is building a scenario from a menu of templates. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Unlike scripted role-playing exercises, the Apex Officer software lets a trainer take a scenario in virtually any direction. Using a voice modulator to speak to Knight as “Dan,” Hayden scrolled through a series of tweakable menus on his computer screen to adjust the character’s facial expression and body language to suggest that he was in crisis.

Hayden said the system’s versatility helps prepare young officers for real patrol shifts, which rarely go as smoothly as traditional training exercises.


The scenario for which Knight was training echoes back to October 2021, when a Portland officer shot Edward Hyman outside the Preble Street Resource Center.

Hyman, a restaurant worker struggling with homelessness and addiction, attempted to commit “suicide by cop” by threatening the officer with what appeared to be a gun he was concealing in his jacket pocket – but was actually just a wallet.

The Attorney General’s office later found the use of force justified – as it has every police shooting in Maine in at least the last 30 years – and Hyman, who survived the injury, apologized and took full responsibility for the shooting.

Back in the simulation, Knight, who is Portland’s longest-tenured patrol officer, showed his experience. He succeeded in talking Dan down by reminding him that he had kids who needed him. After he admitted that he never really had a weapon (Dan, like Hyman, was really reaching for his wallet), he agreed to let Knight take him to the hospital.

“You can have a scenario like this where it goes well. He got a win,” Hayden said. “But that could have gone differently.”

That was borne out in Knight’s next scenario.


The officer was transported to an apartment building where a man was holding a baseball bat and acting erratically. Knight barely had time to tell “Derrick” to put the bat down before the man charged toward him. Knight lunged sideways (in the real world), lifted his weapon – an airsoft handgun modded with motion sensors – and fired three times. Derrick was 6 feet away when the final bullet knocked him to the ground, where he lay unmoving. The entire interaction lasted less than 10 seconds.

It was jarring to watch Knight gun someone down only minutes after showing a deft touch and real compassion during his interactions with Dan. But Hayden said that he did exactly the right thing given the circumstances – and that’s why the training is necessary.

“Sometimes we have to shoot people. Sometimes people really do attack police officers,” Hayden said. “We would not be doing our due diligence if we didn’t train those officers to be able to respond to that as quickly as they can so they have the highest possible chance of survival.”

Portland police officer Dan Knight interacts with a video character experiencing a mental health crisis. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Despite the public perception that police officers are trigger-happy, new cadets at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy generally have the opposite problem, according to use-of-force training coordinator Joshua Daley.

“We typically see extreme hesitation” during use-of-force drills, he said. “The last thing someone wants to have to do is hurt someone or potentially take their life. If you don’t feel that naturally, then you need to find somewhere else to work.”


Police have spent decades looking for ways to demonstrate to young officers just how quickly they need to make decisions about force. In the 1990s, the military and police departments began using the first rudimentary firearms training simulators, called “F.A.T.S”, said Adam Wandt, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies the use of technology in policing.

These “F.A.T.S.” systems used wall-sized video screens to “immerse” trainees in various scenarios that tested their ability to make quick decisions about whether or not to shoot and – when force was required – to strike accurately.

The Maine Criminal Justice Academy has its own two-dimensional use of force simulator, but live role-playing exercises are more central to its curriculum, Daley said. Every cadet goes through about 10 to 12 shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios using nonlethal training weapons, plus another 30 exercises that simulate typical calls for service, including domestic violence, mental health and traffic stops.

Virtual trainings are cheaper and require less manpower to run, but they’re less effective because they’re traditionally scripted and less immersive that live scenarios, Daley said. But stronger VR programs like Portland’s could offer the best of both worlds.

Because reaction time is immutable, Daley said law enforcement agencies over the last two decades have emphasized strategies for avoiding situations like the one Knight faced in the virtual apartment building, where an officer’s only options are to attack or risk being attacked.

Police are now trained to think twice before directly confronting a person in crisis unless they pose an immediate risk to someone else’s safety – better to approach from a distance and try to calm them down than to startle them and potentially escalate the situation. Threat assessment training helps officers find the safest possible way to make an approach so that if something does go wrong, they have the option to take cover, create a diversion or retreat.

In other words, the goal is to buy time so that an officer can wait as long as possible before making the choice that no one wants to make.

Unscripted training programs like Portland’s VR software, which will also be used by South Portland and Westbrook police, can help officers practice applying those deescalation tactics to the drug- and mental-health related scenarios that police are encountering more and more, Wandt said. Like other emerging law enforcement technologies like body cameras, he called advanced training systems “money well spent.”

“Policing is stressful as hell. People have to make life or death decisions, not only for themselves but for the citizens,” Wandt said. “Like a football player has muscle memory to do their job, police officers need the same muscle memory.”

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