Can virtual reality bridge the gap between police and the community?

Connecting the public to law enforcement through VR will provide shared experiences and increase levels of transparency, accountability, and understanding

By Allen Castellano, P1 Contributor

The surroundings seem familiar, but the dim lighting from the street lamps makes it challenging to see through the patrol car’s hazy windshield glare. Nevertheless, all appears quiet…at least for a moment.

Is that a car stopped in the middle of a residential street with its lights off at 2:30 a.m.? The assessment process quickly starts. Is it a stranded motorist, drunk driver, or a get-away vehicle for a crime in progress?

VR has the potential to be a world-wide recruitment tool, as users will be able to select an agency of interest to see if it is the correct fit prior to beginning the application process.
VR has the potential to be a world-wide recruitment tool, as users will be able to select an agency of interest to see if it is the correct fit prior to beginning the application process. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

After pulling behind the dark-colored, compact car, the officer illuminates the interior of the stopped vehicle. The driver immediately begins making furtive movements toward the center console and then hastily exits the vehicle. Without warning, the driver begins to indiscriminately shoot a firearm in the direction of the light source. The officer is hit by gunfire several times while still seated inside the patrol car.

The incident concludes with the anxious officer removing a space-aged headset with trembling hands. Noticeably, the officer’s sensor-equipped weapon never made it out of the holster. Fortunately, the officer was not injured because the situation occurred in a virtual reality training scenario, but for the officer, the experience felt real.

What makes this scenario unique is anyone who has access to virtual reality (VR) technology can experience the dangers associated with policing, even members of the public. Connecting the public to law enforcement through VR could provide shared experiences and increase levels of transparency, accountability and understanding, thereby strengthening relations between law enforcement and the community.  

Public perception of police

Fostering a positive relationship with the community is at the core of law enforcement operations. In reality, the public has little interaction with law enforcement, often calling on the police as a last resort to solve a problem. Television and movies profoundly influence the public’s perception of law enforcement; while unverified or incomplete information often gets passed on through mainstream or social media.

Law enforcement, as a profession, has done little to highlight its positive attributes; however, there is an opportunity to alter this perception through the use of VR. This technology has developed rapidly in both the gaming and entertainment industries, becoming portable, affordable and adaptable to personal smart phone use. Equipment such as Samsung Gear VR, Evo VR, HoloLens, PlayStation VR, and Google Cardboard are examples of what is currently on the market today.

VR’s sensory imagery exposes users to realistic images and sounds, thus creating real-life experiences. According to Erin Carson, author of “9 Industries using Virtual Reality,” one of the biggest hopes underpinning the use of VR is empathy building. Strikingly, VR has the ability to literally see something from another person’s perspective.

Building a virtual reality police academy

Law enforcement could use VR as an olive branch to build trust within the community and, in turn, help recruit qualified candidates into the profession.

For example, VR can educate the public through the creation of a virtual reality police academy. Opening the doors to a VR academy allows the public to gain first-hand experience on how law enforcement officers are trained and what is expected of them.

Speaking about an experience can be informative; however, living an experience can be life-altering. According to Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a very intense experience in the virtual world can change a person in the real world. VR enhances transparency by allowing the public to become more empathetic of what police do every day, as well as understanding, in a more meaningful way, the difficulty of making split-second life and death decisions. Chris Milk, founder of Vrse – a VR company that developed immersive content cameras – described VR as the “ultimate empathy machine” by allowing a person to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

Additionally, a VR academy would allow people, who otherwise may not have considered a career in law enforcement, the chance to give law enforcement a “test ride” prior to actually applying for the job.

VR has the potential to be a world-wide recruitment tool, as users will be able to select an agency of interest to see if it is the correct fit prior to beginning the application process. Others may determine that law enforcement is not the correct career choice; however, they would gain valuable knowledge and a better understanding of the profession.

Using virtual reality for police officer training

VR can also open the door to alternative training methods for law enforcement officers.

VR technology can bring tailored, realistic scenario training directly to the officer, educate and create experiences in specific fields of study, and improve skill levels. It is a mechanism that will provide law enforcement with the best possible training available. VR can also be used to better train officers in the application of force.

Traditional training methods typically start off in a classroom setting and teach officers about the laws and policies pertaining to the application of force. Practical application scenarios then take place in a low-stress, controlled environment. Commonly, officers are placed in a gymnasium setting and the role players for the scenarios are other officers or training staff. Rarely do the scenarios replicate real-life situations or match the stresses involved. If a scenario is not handled properly, the trainer typically discusses alternative options with the officer to gain a better understanding of the situation. There are usually no measureable consequences or outcomes for performing the scenario improperly.

In the mid-1990s, law enforcement agencies attempted to enhance the realism of training scenarios by using interactive videos for officers. Typically, the videos focused on “shoot or don’t shoot” situations; however, the limited interaction and level of responsiveness fell short of its mark. Notwithstanding, VR has already been successfully implemented as a training method for:

  • Teaching military personnel how to effectively maneuver tanks on battlefields;
  • Teaching soldiers how to deploy in live-fire combat operations;
  • Teaching pilots on how to fly complex medical transport missions;
  • Teaching doctors on how to perform complicated medical procedures.

By recreating a familiar patrol environment in a VR setting using customizable, real-life scenarios, officers can work through practical applications to enhance their experience level. The focus is no longer just on “shoot or don’t shoot” scenarios; rather, the experiences will focus on the full spectrum of responsibilities officers face on a daily basis. Therefore, officers will be more familiar with handling various situations when encountered in the field.

For experienced officers, more complex scenarios can be introduced that test their multi-tasking and decision-making abilities. For example, experienced officers can be placed in a VR scenario that requires them to manage multiple crime scenes with several victims. The scenario can test their ability to effectively apprehend suspects by preserving and documenting the crime scene, prioritizing resources, delegating responsibilities and rendering medical aid if necessary. This application would be extremely helpful for field training officers or field supervisors. Using the same concept, VR training can also be extended into the management ranks by training executives on how to best supervise, mentor, and counsel difficult employees.

Law enforcement skills are perishable and incidents occurring in the field are unpredictable. The VR training scenario recordings will show either progress or deficiencies. If deficiencies exist, supervisors can create a performance mentoring plan designed specifically for the officer. VR has the ability to replay scenarios, with multiple outcomes, as a teaching tool and build an officer’s experience level.

Ultimately, the officer can use a VR training scenario to document a simulated incident, provide court testimony and experience the final outcome of scenario-based cases. VR also lends itself to be used in a broader context. It creates an opportunity for officers to become well-rounded in procedural matters and see entire incidents through to fruition. Allowing the public to have VR access to similar training scenarios will help develop a better understanding of the demands placed on law enforcement officers as well.


The adage of “communication is a two-way street” could not be more appropriate in today’s interconnected world. Using VR to train law enforcement officers is just as important as using it to educate the public. By exposing officers to the cultural differences represented within a community, they can experience new levels of familiarity and understanding.

As the foundation of trust grows stronger between law enforcement and the community, new VR programs can be introduced, augmenting ride-a-longs, neighborhood watch groups, community academies and town hall meetings. These programs can be designed to engage the community as partners in the fight against crime and provide a better understanding between law enforcement and communities.

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning & action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and journal article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

About the author
Allen Castellano is a commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  The majority of his 24-year career has been spent in patrol division, where he has focused his efforts on strengthening relationships between law enforcement, stakeholders, and community members. Allen also served eight years as a council member and mayor for the city of Yorba Linda, California. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration, a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and is currently enrolled in California POST Command College.

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