How VR Could Help Reduce Police Brutality

Some experts say it may not be enough

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual reality is an increasingly popular way to teach de-escalation tactics to police officers in a bid to prevent violence. 
  • The Sacramento Police Department is working to incorporate lessons learned into its training curriculum as police around the nation face a growing outcry over police brutality. 
  • Some experts say that there aren’t any independently peer-reviewed studies that show VR can reduce police violence.
FBI Agent Matthew McLaughlin participating in a virtual reality training exercise.

David McNew / Getty Images

Police departments around the country are increasingly turning to virtual reality to train officers in de-escalation tactics, but some experts doubt whether the measure will be effective. 

The Sacramento Police Department is one law enforcement agency that uses virtual reality to recreate real-world police encounters. The department tries to incorporate lessons learned into its training curriculum as police around the nation face a growing outcry over police brutality. 

"VR training reduces violence through immersion and over-exposure," James Deighan, the founder of virtual reality and gaming company, Mega Cat Studios, said in an email interview.

"Nothing comes closer to real-life experiences than high-fidelity VR. There is no question that the most impactful training comes from experience."

Teaching Alternatives to Shooting

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn acknowledged to CNN in a recent interview that his department is dealing with racism in its past. But he said that simulators could help train officers to use tactics other than shooting in encounters. 

The Sacramento department is far from the only police department to use virtual reality simulators. The New York City Police Department, for example, uses active shooter training, which involves headsets for virtual reality. Unlike the VR training by some other organizations, NYPD employees can shoot with real weapons, and actors can play both sides to add unpredictability.

"Virtual reality is the first digital format to trigger the body into believing that the experience is real."

Ohio University recently launched a virtual reality training program for police officers in remote areas. It’s meant to reduce the use of force and teach de-escalation techniques.

Distance, small populations, and low budgets often hinder law enforcement officers and communities in the Appalachian region who seek training and development, said Ohio University’s John Born in a news release

"Trust and safety are equally and critically important to law enforcement, as well as the people being served," said Born, who has previously served as colonel of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. "It can be difficult to deliver effective training and information in an area with geographic and resource challenges."

Law enforcement leaders from around the Appalachian region are working as an advisory group to assist the development of the content for the program, making it as realistic and practical as possible. The initiative ultimately hopes to save lives, as law enforcement officers engage those in crisis differently due to their training.

"As we are seeing on a national level, the focus of de-escalation in police training has not been adequately emphasized," Ohio University Police Department Lt. Tim Ryan, a member of the advisory group, said in the news release. "We hope that this initiative can help fill that void."

Virtual reality training is helpful for police because it can make training more realistic than was previously possible. 

"Virtual reality is the first digital format to trigger the body into believing that the experience is real," Amir Bozorgzadeh, the CEO of virtual reality training company, Virtuleap, said in an email interview. "It is not just a cognitive experience, but also an emotional and experiential one."

Virtual reality development company Vicon has several customers that use its motion capture technology for crime scene reconstruction or to create realistic assets like digital characters for these police interactions. 

"The use of virtual reality in a professional development setting with law enforcement is gaining a lot of traction," Tim Massey, a product manager at Vicon, said in an email interview.

"Over the last few years, we’ve seen VR training breakthroughs in both corporate workplaces and high-risk environments, like mining blast walls where miners can train virtually to mitigate the risk for injury in real life."

VR Is an Unproven Solution

Not everyone is convinced that VR is the answer. Lon Bartel, the director of training for VirTra, a company that makes use of force simulators and de-escalation scenario training for law enforcement agencies, said in an email interview that there aren’t any independently peer-reviewed studies that show VR can reduce police violence. 

"There are some great uses of VR for training when you are teaching linear processes, but people are much more complex," he added.

"The easiest way for most to understand this is that we all know that non-verbal communications are critical; human interactions are often more important than the words we use. I can't capture that with a computer-generated image."

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