Why virtual reality and police training go together

Experts explain the reasons virtual reality is an emerging and important teaching tool for officers of all experience levels


The benefits of using virtual reality for police officer training were explored in "Beyond shoot-don’t shoot,” a recent Police1 digital event.

A behavioral science expert, police chief and police trainer discussed different uses of virtual reality in police officer training while also answering the question of “why virtual reality” is an emerging and important tool for police officer training.  

Anna Queiroz, Ph.D., the first presenter, gave a broad overview of the research about virtual reality training for athletes, educators, students and healthcare professionals, as well as first responders, and explained the applications of that research to police officer training. According to Queiroz, there are four reasons to use virtual reality training: 

  1. The real environment is too dangerous for training.  
  2. Simulated behavior is impossible in real life. 
  3. Virtual reality scenario is counter-productive in real life. 
  4. Real-life activity is too expensive for many people to directly experience.  

Sgt. Robert Bemis (Ret.) and Chief David Lash, during their portions of the event, gave specific examples of the types of situations Queiroz described. For example, trainers can’t hold a safe training event on the side of the highway as traffic rushes by, but a virtual reality scenario can deliver the audio and visual stimulus and other stressors that an officer must navigate during a high-risk traffic stop on the shoulder of a crowded freeway.  

VR for learning 

Virtual reality can be used to help officers learn communication and de-escalation skills, beyond the binary decision of shoot or don’t shoot. “Virtual reality gives participants more agency in their learning so they feel more in control,” Queiroz said.

Agency, which is the feeling of ownership of one’s learning, is important for training to be retained beyond the learning event and applied in real-world situations.  

Queiroz also discussed the importance of VR participants being able to move while using the device, rather than having to sit on a chair or stand in place. “Movement has shown a positive effect on self-efficacy,” Queiroz said.  

Not only is virtual reality an effective way to learn, police recruits expect to receive technologically advanced training from their department. “Virtual reality shows we take training seriously,” Lash said in a comment about the persistent challenge of hiring new police officers.  

VR builds empathy 

Police officers constantly face situations that require them to understand the pain, loss, confusion or frustration someone is facing, making empathy a critical characteristic of today’s most effective police officers. Fortunately, empathy can be learned and nurtured.  

Queiroz described a training program about people experiencing homelessness. Half of the participants watched a video about embodying a person who is homeless while the other half used virtual reality to embody the person who is homeless. The VR participants had more empathy immediately after the training and eight weeks later still had higher levels of empathy than the participants who only watched a video.  

VR training is immersive 

Chief Lash described his first VR experience of walking across a plank 50 stories above the ground. Even though his feet were firmly planted on the floor of the training room, his mind and body were immersed in the virtual environment. When he realized his lifelong fear of heights transferred to the virtual world, he knew virtual reality was a viable training solution for his department’s officers.  

Research supports Lash’s experience. “We understand this environment as real,” Queiroz said. “Our body understands and responds as if it is real.”  

Bemis commented on the importance of immersion, “to create a truly immersive experience, a user must be able to explore what appears to be a life-sized virtual environment and be able to change perspectives seamlessly.”  

According to Bemis, the 3-D virtual reality training environment:  

  • Let’s the officer see angles as they would in real life 
  • Promotes situational awareness about an officer’s full 360-degree environment 
  • Makes the officer feels as if they are in the space, even if it’s computer-generated 

“We want to use computer-generated graphics to make the situation believable and the experience users have is very real. They experience increased heart rate, perspiration and shortness of breath,” Bemis said.  

During the webinar, the participants listed the many benefits of virtual reality training for police officers. 
During the webinar, the participants listed the many benefits of virtual reality training for police officers. 

VR training gives officers reps 

Chief Lash’s department has added a lot of new officers in recent years and the department needed a way to put less experienced officers into stressful situations in a controlled environment. “We give them experiences where we could teach, train and correct mistakes,” he said.  

Younger officers, Lash has found, are familiar and experienced with virtual reality and expect it to be part of their training. New officers and lateral transfers, according to Lash, might value a department using virtual reality for training higher than a department that is not because of what virtual reality training says about how a department is prioritizing officer training.  

Communication and de-escalation skills have always been important for police officers, but have taken on increased importance in the last two years. Lash’s department and community wanted scenarios relevant to current social issues. They also wanted scenarios that challenge officers to use communication and de-escalation skills, as well as multiple weapons systems and the full use of force continuum.  

Through donations, Lash’s community fully funded a five-year virtual reality training program lease and donors have already committed to another five years. “They (donors in our community) appreciate that we are making communication and de-escalation training a priority,” Lash said.  

VR training is consistent 

Every officer who dons the VR head-mounted display receives a consistent experience. The simulated environment, hazards and behaviors of suspects and bystanders are the same and not subject to variability that comes from live-action role players or a cadre of instructors asked to deliver a training program across stations and shifts.  

VR training prioritizes evaluation and debriefing 

Bemis believes the most important part of simulation and scenario-based training is the debrief. Some virtual reality software can record and replay the entire scenario from different vantage points. The police officer and trainer can replay segments from the officer’s viewpoint, a bird’s eye view, or from the suspect's viewpoint. During the debrief Bemis wants to know if the officer:  

  • Knew the assignment 
  • Used communication skills 
  • Assessed the scene continuously 
  • Applied the appropriate amount of force 
  • Articulated a response consistent with department policies 

VR training is the future of police training 

"Virtual reality is the future of police training,” Nancy Perry, Editor-in-Chief of Police1, said at the end of the digital event. “We’re going to keep our officers and our communities safer. It’s a win-win for everyone.”  

After viewing this on-demand video of "Beyond shoot-don’t shoot,” schedule a demo with the virtual reality companies serving law enforcement to experience the future of police training firsthand.  

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