The Added Value of VR in Preventing Ethnic Profiling
Bas Böing, Captain, Chief Inspector, National Police Force, Netherlands, and P.W. (Peter) de Vries, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Twente
Police departments across the world increasingly face allegations of ethnic profiling. According to the European Fundamental Rights Agency, ethnic profiling involves treating an individual less favorably than others who are in a similar situation (e.g., by exercising police powers), and where a decision to exercise police powers is based only or mainly on that person’s race, ethnicity, or religion.1 Over the years, law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States have made considerable investments in professionalizing policing to prevent ethnic profiling. However, attempts to improve officers’ knowledge and skills to remedy potential biases toward certain demographic groups have proved challenging and ineffective.2
Part of the problem is that ethnic profiling is a topic that seems to be of little interest to many police officers. The subject is sensitive and prone to invoke emotional and defensive reactions.3 Effectively addressing the issue of ethnic profiling in training is, therefore, challenging. Officers may be unmotivated to take part in interventions in classrooms or via e-learning, and dominant group opinions may cause officers to seek concurrence where constructive debate would be preferred for learning purposes.
Dedicated training and constructive dialogues with peers are vital to make police officers aware of their own prejudices and unconscious biases, and, thus, to mitigate ethnic profiling. Therefore, law enforcement agencies must look for innovative and alternative ways that are both fun and engaging, as well as effective, in facilitating learning on this important matter.
The Need for Innovation in Training
Amid increasing calls for reform, police leaders often rely on interventions that promise a quick fix. Examples of common approaches are workshops, diversity training, e-learning, and codes of practice. However, there is no guarantee that any of these interventions will lead to change. They are often supported by anecdotal accounts and experts’ endorsements alone and are not scientifically validated.4 Moreover, it asks, “To what extent are police officers willing to participate?” Earlier studies demonstrate that officers tend to ignore instructions that they fail to see the value of, that lie outside their comfort zone, or that add significantly to their workload.5 The key, therefore, is to convince them of the relevance of the reform. What are needed are tools that are perceived as appealing and valuable and, above all, that can help develop a more introspective view, which will stimulate learning.
The challenge in any police training and reform is that police officers cannot be seen as isolated individuals. They are part of a team, often with strong ingroup loyalty and solidarity, and may be confronted with the attitudes of others opposing reform.6 Collective views, morals, and convictions can make it hard for officers to state their own individual or deviating views, as doing so may lead to bullying, intimidation, and social exclusion. This dynamic can make officers hesitant to discuss sensitive topics or even to challenge the status quo.7 Therefore, any reform activity must address the social and cultural influences that prevent officers from adopting a desired behavior.
Hence, for officers to adhere to new practices, they must first appreciate the value of such practices. Once officers understand the destructive effects of ethnic profiling, not only on the community but also on the legitimacy and effectiveness of police work, it is more likely that they will become invested in reforms aiming to prevent it. Second, officers must feel safe from the potential disapproval of colleagues to explore different pathways that can lead to better police work. Therefore, the Dutch (Netherlands) police force is investing in tools that address these issues to encourage police officers to adopt more professional behavior, reducing the likelihood of ethnic profiling. One of these tools is virtual reality (VR).
An Evidence-Based Intervention
Together with the University of Twente’s psychology department and tech company Scopic, the Dutch police designed an interactive scenario training in 360-film/VR, followed by a group dialogue to reflect on the choices made in VR. The training can best be seen as a form of serious gaming in which participants are constantly compelled to reflect and explain the decisions made in relation to professional police stops and is intended to prevent ethnic profiling.
VR has been shown to cause higher motivation and greater involvement in the learning process.8 Particularly, its “fun factor” can motivate people to participate, even on controversial topics such as preventing ethnic profiling.9 Some studies also show that VR can cause distraction from anxiety and pain and is therefore increasingly used in training and therapy.10 The authors believe that VR could also work well for police officers experiencing frustration, injustice, and anxiety over claims of ethnic profiling.
Important in this respect are the concepts of presence and engagement.11 Presence relates to the subjective sensation of “being there,” which may encourage users to devote attention to the situation they are experiencing. Thus, through their presence, VR may increase users’ empathy. The other concept, engagement, builds upon presence. This relates to variables such as enjoyment and involvement and may be instrumental in getting officers into a learning mode. Thus, a highly immersive VR environment, together with a realistic script (from a “street cop” perspective), may create a high sense of presence and engagement, necessary for both cooperation and learning.
The authors believe that having police officers engage in police work and discuss their choices in a controlled, safe, and gamified environment, stimulates the learning that ultimately benefits reform. Additionally, this gamified and direct way of learning (“learning by doing”), through social interaction with peers and under the leadership of an experienced in-service trainer, could be more effective than conventional text-based engagements. Yet, most of the contemporary training measures today consist of codes of conduct, e-learnings, and toolkits to transfer knowledge from one person to another.
Part 1: Scenario Training in Virtual Reality
The first part of the training consists of a simulation in VR. The simulation puts the participants in a 360-degree environment in the shoes of a police officer, accompanied by a colleague, on a city square or in a parking lot. At the start, the colleague in the simulation asks the participants whether they “see someone who is worth investigating.” The participants then have two minutes to observe the people passing by in the VR environment and, based on this observation, take action at their own discretion. Although dozens of people can be seen in the simulation, the participants can initiate an interaction with only some of them (i.e., only the actors, not regular pedestrians). Once they have selected someone, participants are presented with several questions on how to proceed. Each question (story branch) contains two or three options to choose from; options are always both escalating (e.g., identification check, search, fine, arrest), and de-escalating (e.g., cease the interaction).
With every presented dilemma, participants have a maximum of five seconds to choose a person or group with whom to initiate an interaction. The time window is deliberately set short to stimulate more impulsive and fast decision-making.12 This short duration is considered to be more in line with real-life operational decisions.
Figure 1 presents an example of a dilemma during gameplay in which participants were given the choice between apprehending (“aanhouden”) or dismissing (“deescaleren”) a party of four. Underneath these options, participants can see the passage of time. Similarly, in Figure 2, participants were given the choice between requesting ID (“ID vragen”) or dismissing (“laten gaan”) the character in the game. Depending on the choices made, participants receive a code at the end, ranging from “alpha” to “zulu,” representing the specific choices made during the simulation.
Drawing on race-and-force studies, police officers holding particular prejudices toward certain groups may be more focused on alleged group membership in relation to crime, and act accordingly.13 The general argument in these studies is that officers’ distrust with regard to people of non-Western ethnic background increases the likelihood that those people will be targeted for inspection, compared to people with a Western ethnic background. These community members also may be at a higher risk for experiencing coercion and less procedural justice during these interactions.14
As such, the VR scenarios are designed in such a way that participants who are distracted by these biases and heuristics (fast and automatic cognitive processes) could miss the real culprit (e.g., the man dealing drugs in the first scenario). Moreover, these participants are more likely to miss the “real” story behind certain behaviors when they decide to make only escalating choices.
A final word for caution should be noted here. While designing the VR scenarios, it was recognized that, aside from racial prejudices, there may also be other traits that can motivate police officers to choose escalating pathways. Police officers with a so-called “warrior” mentality, are more likely to focus on crime control and less on human rights.15 It is likely that these participants choose to go beyond the legal basis and opt for a more escalating pathway, though not necessarily because of racial biases.
VR Scenario Examples
Example 1: Participants find themselves in front of a train station and can choose between a party of four adolescent men with a supposed non-Western ethnic background and a Western European man who is walking around and talking to different strangers. Those who find these young men suspicious might not notice this man or the people he approaches, who are all shaking their heads and making dismissive gestures with their hands. Participants could have learned later in the simulation that this man is selling drugs if this individual had been selected to engage in interaction. Example 2: Participants see a party of three adolescent men, again with a supposed non-Western ethnic background, in the company of an expensive-looking white Mercedes AMG. At first, these men do nothing out of the ordinary, but after 90 seconds, the participant might catch one of the men tossing garbage out of the car. Participants who have selected the men in the first 90 seconds do not have any legal ground, as opposed to when the selection is made after the littering.
Part 2: Group Dialogue & Reflection
The second part of the training consists of group dialogue. Directly after completing the VR simulation, participants are encouraged to discuss their choices in group conversations. Discussion leaders (all in-service trainers) first identify officers who have all made identical choices and then allow one party to present their case. After these participants have made their case, participants who have made different choices are invited to speak. When hearing these different experiences, participants belonging to the first group may feel challenged and may become uncertain about their own choices. This may lead them to reevaluate an initial point of view, causing them to engage in higher-level cognitive reasoning, and, ultimately, stimulate awareness of their own potential biases in day-to-day police activities. Part of this methodology is based on constructive controversy.16
What are the pros and cons of this type of VR training? From an organizational point of view, the training is interesting for various reasons.
Following the VR simulations, participants discuss their choices in group sessions.
First, police forces often lack the financial resources to hire expensive external trainers and consultants. The use of in-service professionals makes not only the costs of training more bearable but also the training more successful.17 Participants are more open to new information when it comes from respected peers. Recent research into de-escalation training also points in this direction. Moreover, as the training is digital, it is scalable to unlimited VR goggles. In the Netherlands and Belgium together, the training currently runs on some 300 VR goggles, with a few dozen police professionals serving as in-service trainers. So far, these trainers have trained approximately 15,000 of their peers in one or more scenarios. Although interactive VR scenarios are relatively expensive to create, they deliver a substantial return on investment when thousands of law enforcement personnel are trained with just one scenario. The Dutch police has doubled down on the policy and just released a fourth scenario to consolidate the new teachings.
Second, many police chiefs deal with police officers within the ranks who are unmotivated to engage in sensitive conversations. At the same time, many of these leaders are expected to undertake steps to improve skills and practices and (re)gain public trust. The first study into this training found that using VR leads to less resistance and a more positive attitude toward the subject.18 Apparently, the effect of VR on training effectiveness is twofold. First, many police officers seem eager to try VR. Often, they know about VR and are interested in it, but may not have had the opportunity to actually experience it. As a result, their curiosity may prove stronger than any existing resistance toward the subject. Second, once actually using VR, the realism, immersion, and engagement level seem to distract participants, making them temporarily forget anxiety, pain, and frustration. In addition, personal accounts from trainers and participants indicate that emotions largely disappear during the training, when participants come to understand that they are not being judged and stereotyped as racists by discussion leaders or colleagues. It thus seems that in addition to VR, neutral language and appreciative inquiry techniques contribute to psychological safety among participants. (A study exploring this element further is currently underway.)
Third, scenario training in VR makes critical reflection less difficult, as the technology allows trainers to pause, rewind, and replay scenarios to demonstrate to participants what they can improve. When dialogues are done in groups (preferably with some diversity), the variety of group choices and opinions can motivate participants to change perspectives and encourage police officers to explore different behaviors. To substantiate this tentative belief, a future longitudinal study will look at the effects at both the individual level and group level when participants are exposed to multiple scenarios over a longer period of time. This study, scheduled to start in early 2023, is part of a PhD project with the University of Twente that the Dutch Police has endorsed.
Finally, the VR training seems to lower the threshold for members of the public and police to discuss (perceptions of) ethnic profiling. Some of the Dutch police stations who have piloted this training have invited members of the public to join them in their conservations. For community members, it is a unique chance to step into the shoes of a police officer and realize how difficult policing can be. This can lead to more empathy for police officers as well.
Getting officers to participate in activities to mitigate ethnic profiling is challenging. As said, the subject is unpopular and confrontational and may trigger various emotions and defense mechanisms, leaving some officers unmotivated to invest in the desired behavior. Therefore, it is recommended to invest in a safe learning environment. The gamifying policy instructions in VR training , while “fun to do,” are simply not enough to create the level of reflection needed to change individual and group practices. For that reason, other and more fundamental changes in the structure and culture of the organization are needed, including the use of ingroup members, preferably informal leaders, as conversation leaders. These officers possess the buy-in needed to socially influence other team members toward desired behavior.
Nevertheless, continued participation in training on sensitive topics by both novices and seasoned police officers is key to increasing awareness of the necessity for and importance of change. VR, paired with group discussions, provides a cost-effective and scalable method for engaging staff in such training. 🛡
Captain B.S. (Bas) Böing, MSc, is police captain, program lead for the Dutch National Police, and a PhD candidate at the University of Twente.
P.W. (Peter) de Vries, PhD, works as an assistant professor at the University of Twente, at the Department of Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Security as faculty for Behavioural, Management & Social Sciences.
9Liza J. M. Cornet and Jean-Louise van Gelder, “Virtual Reality: A Use Case for Criminal Justice Practice,” Psychology, Crime and Law 26, no. 7 (2020): 631–647.
10Priscilla G. Wittkopf et al., “The Effect of Interactive Virtual Reality on Pain Perception: A Systematic Review of Clinical Studies,” Disability and Rehabilitation 42, no. 26 (2020): 3722–3733.
11Baptiste Barbot and James C. Kaufman, “What Makes Immersive Virtual Reality the Ultimate Empathy Machine? Discerning the Underlying Mechanisms of Change,” Computers in Human Behavior 111 (October 2020).
15Kyle McLean et al., “Police Officers as Warriors or Guardians: Empirical Reality or Intriguing Rhetoric?” Justice Quarterly37, no. 6 (2020): 1096–1118.
16David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and Dean Tjosvold, “Constructive Controversy: The Value of Intellectual Opposition,” in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000), 65–85.