By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Shortly before midnight on March 23, a South Sacramento resident called 911 reporting that he’d heard several gunshots in the area behind his house on the 5900 block of Tangerine Avenue. When an officer arrived to check things out, a man, later identified as 32-year-old Joshua Hippard, approached the police vehicle and opened fire. 

The Sacramento Police Department, in accordance with City policy, released body camera footage from the incident, including the officer, in turn, shooting Hippard. There was also video from a drone that was deployed during the attempt to apprehend Hippard and get him to put down his weapon, a .45 caliber pistol. When Hippard failed to comply to officers’ orders to move further away from where he’d placed the gun on the ground, a robot from the SPD Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit came in to move the weapon from within his reach as part of attempts to de-escalate the situation and take the man into custody.

The use of robots and drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), are part of innovations the local police department, led by Black police chief Daniel Hahn, is using of late to change the way policing is happening throughout the city. 

Earlier this month, The Sacramento OBSERVER had the chance to try out a new virtual reality training program that the SPD has been using with Police Academy recruits. Users don special headsets and are armed with virtual guns and tasers. Once the headset is turned on, users are thrust into scenarios that a police officer may encounter. Examples during the media demonstration included officers who responded to a school shooting, a man walking down the street with a knife and a college student who is threatening to commit suicide. 

“Instructors watch everything you do,” Chief Hahn said.

“You can view what they did on the screen after the scenario’s over and then instructors say, ‘You could have done this better,’ ‘You should have gone here’ or ‘You should have done that.’ Everything can be critiqued, so it’s a completely immersive system,” he continued.

“Egregious” behavior could mean failing the Academy and losing one’s job.

“That’s on any day,” the chief said. “If they come to roll call and their sergeant doesn’t feel that they are capable of handling the job today, they won’t be out on the street. That’s not just for virtual reality, that’s every single day.”

How an officer performs in a “classroom” with eyes watching is vastly different that when they’re out in the street.

“When it’s not real, of course you know it’s not real, so it’s probably not quite (as intense,” Chief Hahn said. 

“When I’m playing a video game and someone’s pointing a gun at me, it’s not the same as when I’m out on the street, which has happened in my career, when someone’s pointing a gun at me. In one, I can actually die and one, I know I can’t, but the fact that it’s totally immersive, it is meant to try to make it as realistic as possible. It’s trying to get you to perform under stress.”

Hahn pointed to the Hippard shooting.

Chief Daniel Hahn says the use of state-of-the-art technology is helping to change the way policing is done in Sacramento and is improving outcomes. (OBSERVER photo by Robert Maryland)

“Three weeks ago somebody walked up to the passenger side of a police officer and tried to murder him before he could even get out of the driver’s seat,” Chief Hahn said of the Hippard incident. “That’s stressful, but he needs to operate and be able to respond to that even though somebody’s trying to kill him, and he did. These scenarios get you as close to that as you possibly can.”

The virtual training doesn’t use real-life situations, but according to Chief Hahn, some of the recent incidents have been used in other training sessions.

“We use various scenarios from around the country, including even a week after they occur, when we see them on the news,” Chief Hahn said. “We’ll put our trainees through those same scenarios. It’s a lot more realistic to use a real scenario that everybody kind of sees on the news and put our recruits through and show them what needs to occur on those. It’s just very realistic and no one can say, ‘well you just made that up,’ or ‘that would never happen,’ because it happened the week earlier.”

Realism, he says, can save lives — those of community members and that of the officers themselves.

“We put them through all kinds of scenarios so the first time they are handling that scenario or similar scenarios is not when they’re out on the street, it’s when they’re in a safe classroom with trainers who can help them,” he said.

Drones can illuminate dark areas that pose a threat to officers and the public. The small flying objects can go into tight spaces where officers can’t and are also equipped with cameras that relay information back to a patrol car and aid in certain calls and situations. The SacPD has 25 UAS being used by patrol officers. Thirty-five are licensed to fly the drones and 10 more officers are nearing completion of their certification, Chief Hahn says.

Drone technology may have prompted the officers who fatally shot Stephon Clark in March 2018 to act differently, but that’s hard to say definitively, Chief Hahn has said. Clark was killed in the backyard of his grandmother’s Meadowview home after a foot pursuit by officers who ran around a dark corner and mistook the 22-year-old father’s cellphone for a handgun. 

Technology and proper training can aid officers in the split-second decisions they have to make, Hahn said.

With recent calls to “defund the police” Chief Hahn has been demonstrating publicly how dollars are at work to change how policing happens. Initial funding for the virtual training technology came from a grant from the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), Hahn said.

“I don’t know if there will be other costs in the future, but that’s our plan to do the portable (units)  not only for our officers, but the community and utilize 3D scanning of real environments.” Trainers can scan local buildings and areas to make the virtual simulations more realistic to situations they may actually encounter.

“We created a Research and Development Division a couple of years ago,” Hahn explained of the effort. “They travel around the country to research things whether it’s technology or training or equipment and bring that back. Our training staff does a remarkable job of staying up-to-date and putting our recruits through the most strenuous training they can have so when they get out there they are as prepared as they can be.”