young woman works through a virtual reality scenario

Jamie Stephens, a master’s student in SIU’s criminology and criminal justice program, works through a virtual reality scenario last fall of a call for service of a disorderly person at a residence with Kevin Cox, SIU Department of Public Safety, observing. The program is using the VR simulator to give students greater insight into law enforcement challenges and providing a research mechanism on attitudes toward police work. (Photo by Yenitza Melgoza)

April 05, 2023

SIU criminology program using virtual reality to better understand police work

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — A virtual reality simulator in Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s criminology and criminal justice program will provide students greater insight into law enforcement challenges, while also providing a research mechanism to study aspects of police work.

With the help of grants from the College of Health and Human Sciences’ DEVELOP (Developing, Elevating, and Leading Educational Opportunities and Programs) and the SIU Foundation Faculty Research programs, the APEX Officer system was installed last fall. Since then, Matthew Giblin, School of Justice and Public Safety director, and two criminology graduate assistants, Jamie Stephens and Samantha Barnhart, began enlisting students to gauge attitudes toward police work both before and after participating in the survey and exercise. By mid-March, 70 students participated in the study in the lab space in Faner Hall or in Mae Smith and Neely Halls. 

While most students in the program have an interest in policing careers, Giblin is quick to point out that the system is not used to teach police tactics.

“What we are trying to demonstrate with our system is the challenges that law enforcement officers face in police decision-making,” he said. “How difficult split-second decision-making is; how difficult it is to fire a weapon; how difficult it is to fire a weapon accurately. Those are what we are trying to demonstrate. All that can be done without having to teach tactics and strategies.”

Different scenarios, environments and outcomes available

Unlike screen-based simulators, the VR experience allows the operator to change scenarios — including traffic stops, city neighborhoods, streets, neighborhoods and alleys. And the operator, or trainer, can also change how the VR people with the scenarios interact with students. Throughout the exercise, students wear about a 15-pound backpack featuring a high-end computer equipped with a realistic rifle, pistol and taser.

The system is completely responsive to whoever is being trained, and scenarios can extend as long as needed to accomplish the purpose of the exercise, Giblin said.

“If we have you in the training module and you are saying to the citizen in the module, ‘put your hands up,’ we can make them comply or not. It’s not based on what has already been filmed,” he said.  “The idea behind it is that not everything should be a shoot/no shoot decision. The reality is that police use of force is rare so any training system should promote the type of interaction strategies making force unnecessary through say, effective communication, but also prepares officers for situations when force may have to be used.”

The experiences can be eye-opening for students, said Giblin, noting the idea is to show students some of the decision-making involved.

Faculty can take a class where they are talking about police decision-making and let students gain firsthand experiences, Giblin said. “We can actually have people comply with those kinds of communications. You can actually get people in our system to respond positively to respectful communication and promote that that kind of behavior so it’s not just resorting to force. I think the idea is to take what we talk about in the classroom when we look at research evidence and apply that or give them to opportunity to experience that.”

Used by police nationwide

Some colleges have simulators connected to campus law enforcement agencies or, less commonly, criminal justice programs, Giblin said. The city of Carbondale Police Department also has an Apex Officer VR simulator that the officers train on regularly. Giblin said the program was able to bring back useful training information and scenarios after meeting with Carbondale officials in December. 

Benjamin Newman, director, SIU Department of Public Safety, said police officers used the program’s system when it was originally acquired last year, and that VR systems “help build repetition and improve decision making.”

“These systems allow trainees to experience service calls in a controlled environment,” he said. “Trainers are afforded the opportunity to provide coaching in relational and tactical skills.”

Myriad research possibilities

Giblin sees numerous research possibilities across several educational areas and topics.

“From a research perspective, the system will allow us to study topics like stress, procedural justice, implicit biases,” he said.

Another example, he said, could be utilizing the kinesiology program to monitor anticipatory stress levels as students or officers would go through various scenarios.

Stephens and Barnhart each said they believe the VR simulator will be useful for students and provide them with a hands-on approach. Barnhart, who is from Belleville, earned a law degree from the SIU School of Law in May 2022 and has bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and psychology from Greenville University.

Stephens, who earned her bachelor’s degree in the program in May 2022, is from Schaumburg, Illinois, and is looking into going into the investigations area in law enforcement.

“I think this will be a good tool and believe we will see attitudes change when we see the data,” she said. “It could be useful to helping people understand the realities of real-world situations.”

Preliminary studies show change in attitudes

Giblin, Stephens and Barnhart presented preliminary findings from their research at the annual meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 18.  The study examines student experiences with the VR simulation and its effects on attitudes toward the police. Students completed several tasks in a simulated shooting range, including hitting moving targets, and separately, quickly reacting to threatening individuals during pedestrian and traffic stop encounters. 

The preliminary findings showed 75% or more of the student participants agreed or strongly agreed that the VR simulation was fun, educational, realistic, and a great training tool for police officers.  Students also expressed interested in participating in the VR simulation again and wished that the roughly 15-minute demonstration lasted longer, Giblin said.

The preliminary results also showed students who participated in the VR had, on the whole, slightly more positive attitudes toward the police when compared to a randomly assigned group of students who completed the survey before participating in the VR simulation, according to Giblin. For example, VR participants were slightly more likely to agree or strongly agree with the statement, “When police officers use force, including deadly force, they are typically responding to a threat,” and, “In general, most police officers are well-trained to perform their work.” 

Can also enhance recruiting

Giblin points to another benefit for the program — recruiting. In addition to participating in a mock class and student panel discussion, potential students and their parents can be involved. 

“We can actually walk somebody to our VR lab and say, ‘This is something we have here, and people are going to get to experience firsthand what it is like to be a police officer and encounter a certain situation,’” he said. “These are the different things that you can do, and the families really seem to like to participate in that.”