Skip to main content
Move the World.
police training vr

Lead Image Courtesy of Apex Officer

The Sacramento Police Department (SPD) is using virtual reality simulations of high-profile police killings of Black Americans as part of its police training program, in the hopes that future officers will make better decisions that could save lives.

The need: The killing of George Floyd — an unarmed Black man — by white police officers in Minnesota in 2020 prompted a massive wave of protests across the U.S., with participants decrying police misconduct and demanding reform.

As part of this reform, many called for improved police training.

"The training we've had hasn't changed in 25 years, and it's out of step with today's needs," Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told CNN. "We need to rethink and reimagine how we train."

The challenge: Training officers to attempt to de-escalate high-stress situations before resorting to deadly force could help prevent unnecessary killings in the future, and one of the most effective ways to impart this police training may be to reenact real-world scenarios.

"The closer we get to the real world, the better the training is," SPD Lieutenant Zach Bales told CNN.

But these reenactments usually involved trainees either performing a scene with actors or watching it play out on a television screen, and those approaches might not feel entirely "real" to an officer in training.

The VR solution: With VR, the SPD is able to train officers for difficult encounters in a way that's more accurate and immersive than other reenactments.

"It can trick the brain very quickly into putting you physiologically in that environment and helping with that stress inoculation that officers need in order to make good decisions in high-stress situations," Bales said.

"They're able to see all of the options available to them instead of being narrowly focused on an individual threat or an individual problem."

VR simulations can be made quickly — Bales said the department can have one ready for police training the day after a controversial shooting takes place — and they involve fewer logistical hurdles than real-world reenactments, too, since departments don't have to find actors or secure a location.

"We're able to change dialogue, the environment, the type of call..."

Kyle Hill

A growing trend: The SPD isn't the first or only department using VR in the hopes of training officers to use force only when necessary — the use of VR in police training is a growing trend, with a number of companies designing and selling simulators to departments across the nation.

Nevada's Apex Officer offers a system that utilizes AI and randomization to ensure recruits are constantly presented with unique training scenarios. Another company, SURVIVR, meanwhile, bases many of its scenarios on real incidents submitted by its customers.

Training officers can talk with recruits after they go through the simulations, discussing what they might have done right or should handle differently in the future. They can also make tweaks to scenarios, ensuring they perfectly fit the training curriculum.

"We're able to change dialogue, the environment, the type of call, and really we're only limited by our imaginations," Lieutenant Kyle Hill of Oklahoma's Moore Police Department told local news station KWTV.

The big picture: Because the use of VR for police de-escalation training is relatively new, it's hard to say exactly how big of an impact it will have on avoidable police killings in the U.S.

However, when CBS affiliate WUSA9 asked Barnstable Police Department (BPD) Sergeant Kevin Connolly whether he thought the department's use of VR for police training might reduce the number of excessive force deaths, he was optimistic.

"All you can hope for is the more you go through scenarios and see different outcomes, it will help you make a decision in the field," Connolly said. "Because if you've seen that scenario before, as long as it's similar, it should help."

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Fixing Justice
Do Police De-Escalation Techniques Work?
de-escalation
Fixing Justice
Do Police De-Escalation Techniques Work?
The public is calling on law enforcement to find alternatives to using force. But do de-escalation tactics actually work?

The public is calling on law enforcement to find alternatives to using force. But do de-escalation tactics actually work?

#fixingjustice - policing
The Dad Changing How Police Shootings Are Investigated
The Dad Changing How Police Shootings Are Investigated
Watch Now
#fixingjustice - policing
The Dad Changing How Police Shootings Are Investigated
After his son was killed by police, Michael Bell fought for over a decade to change how we investigate police shootings.
Watch Now

For over a decade, ever since police killed his son, Michael Bell has been trying to get an independent investigation into the shooting — and he's fighting to make sure that every family is entitled to one, whenever police use lethal force. In November 2004, his son, Michael Bell, Jr., was pulled over in front of his home in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for an alleged traffic violation. Although a dashcam video captures the initial...

#fixingjustice - Policing
Civilian Oversight Is a Solution to Police Misconduct. But is it Effective?
civilian oversight
#fixingjustice - Policing
Civilian Oversight Is a Solution to Police Misconduct. But is it Effective?
Creating a civilian review board to oversee police conduct seems like a straightforward solution to disciplinary...
By Andrew Denney

Creating a civilian review board to oversee police conduct seems like a straightforward solution to disciplinary issues on the force. But why is it so hard to implement?

#fixingjustice - Policing
Do We Need More Police Or Better Police?
Do We Need More Police Or Better Police?
#fixingjustice - Policing
Do We Need More Police Or Better Police?
American cities are safer than they used to be, but they’re still quite violent, and many economists think they’re...

American cities are safer than they used to be, but they’re still quite violent, and many economists think they’re under-policed. More police could help reduce crime, but only if people trust them to do a good job.

Fixing Justice
Rethinking Public Safety: Are Police Always Needed?
Public Safety
Fixing Justice
Rethinking Public Safety: Are Police Always Needed?
The mobile mental health service CAHOOTS handles public safety calls related to mental or behavioral health for the Eugene Police Department.

The mobile mental health service CAHOOTS handles public safety calls related to mental or behavioral health for the Eugene Police Department.

Fixing Justice
Your Smartphone Can Help End Police Misconduct
Police Misconduct
Fixing Justice
Your Smartphone Can Help End Police Misconduct
There are now apps, websites, and phone shortcuts designed to help you not only document police misconduct, but also report and protect it.

There are now apps, websites, and phone shortcuts designed to help you not only document police misconduct, but also report and protect it.

Fixing Justice
How Police Spend Their Time
How Police Spend Their Time
Fixing Justice
How Police Spend Their Time
The New York Times looks at how police spend their time at work, providing insights that could be useful for “unbundling the police” efforts.

The New York Times looks at how police spend their time at work, providing insights that could be useful for “unbundling the police” efforts.

Fixing Justice
Volunteers Build First Nationwide Database of Police Records
Police Records
Fixing Justice
Volunteers Build First Nationwide Database of Police Records
Thousands of volunteers are data scraping public websites to compile police records into a single national database for researchers to mine.

Thousands of volunteers are data scraping public websites to compile police records into a single national database for researchers to mine.

#FIXINGJUSTICE - policing
Independent Watchdog Invisible Institute Helps Police Accountability
How to Hold Police Accountable
Watch Now
#FIXINGJUSTICE - policing
Independent Watchdog Invisible Institute Helps Police Accountability
The Invisible Institute is making Chicago police complaints easily available to the public—and is helping hold police accountable.
Watch Now

A Freethink update: It's been several months since we first brought you the story of journalist Jamie Kalven and his influential "Sixteen Shots" expose in Slate that depicted a corrupt Chicago police department in the midst of a cover-up following the racist killing of teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke on October 20, 2014. Since then, Kalven has written another critical piece, this...