Ethnic profiling is a common but often unspoken issue among police officers. Regardless of courses or training, breaking the taboo seemed impossible... That is until a few years ago, when the Dutch national police introduced Virtual Reality (VR) training.
Bas Böing works at the Police Academy in Apeldoorn. As a PhD researcher and project leader in VR, he has been involved in professional control and the phenomenon of ethnic profiling for years. "Ethnic profiling is a form of discrimination during traffic stops and, in my view, a complex problem. This is partly because biases often play out unconsciously. Additionally, officers typically react defensively when they have to discuss this issue."
"For a while, we explored how VR could play a role in addressing this challenge. However, a linear video with a fixed sequence had its limitations, and so the desired effect was not achieved. Participants in the video observed the behavior of other police officers, always claiming that they would have handled the situation very differently. Therefore, it was important to design an interactive variant."
The police sought external help. Böing: "Through a tendering process we ended up with Scopic_Labs. We built a prototype together and tested it with police officers in Amsterdam. It turned out to be a golden move. Currently, 150 instructors nationwide have been trained to deliver the VR training, and tens of thousands of officers have already participated."
What sets these VR experiences apart is the participant's choices during playback. Throughout the video, the officer faces various options, such as whether or not to address or penalize someone. Böing explains, "We can use deep fake technology to change the skin color or ethnicity of a person. Will someone get fined more often in such an instance? These aspects are interesting and relevant to explore and discuss."
According to Böing, openly discussing ethnic profiling is one of the major benefits of the new training method. "In initial training rounds, we noticed participants first became insecure and more resistant to share the VR experiences regarding their choices. But by engaging in safe conversations more frequently, we saw that insecurity and resistance diminish. What we see now is that groups that have been trained with VR multiple times reflect better on their own actions."
Böing supports his statements not only with testimonials from leaders and participants, but also through his doctoral research on the effects of this training. Particularly notable here is the increase in knowledge and introspection among police officers. "Whether attitudes and behaviour in practice also change, we do not know yet. To determine that, the final measurement is crucial, and we haven't reached that point yet. Not to mention that change takes time. But the progress we have made already is promising and highly satisfying."
The collaboration between the police, the University of Twente, and Scopic_Labs has not gone unnoticed internationally. The Belgian police already use the same VR training as in the Netherlands, and Scopic_Labs is working on a German-language version.
The project also received international recognition by winning the Europol Excellence Award in Innovation 2023, a prestigious international prize open to police services worldwide.
In the Netherlands, work is underway for a fifth scenario with a new story. Böing: "I see so many more opportunities to use VR in training police officers. This learning method is truly revolutionary. It allows us to be smarter with people and resources, because you don't need to hire actors or provide materials, aside from a few reusable headsets. Furthermore, it offers the chance to develop and execute targeted training programmes. Each part of the Netherlands has its own unique challenges, and VR offers endless possibilities for each area."
At the same time, Böing remains critical. "No training is one hundred percent foolproof. Questions in a VR environment are always sensitive to socially desirable answers. It seems lifelike, but for some, it remains a game with fewer options than in practice."
Böing is very pleased with the collaboration with Scopic_Labs. "We have a common goal. Just that alone is already very pleasant. Additionally, thanks to our long collaboration, we know exactly what to expect from each other. Often, we agree, and sometimes our thinking is complementary. That works perfectly because we constructively challenge each other. Scopic_Labs knows everything about production, making relevant selections, shooting videos, and testing. I am familiar with how police operations unfold in practice. As a result, we create incredible content used for police training. We act fast and no challenge is too great. That’s a great feeling."
Böing's doctoral research will conclude next year. "From the sidelines, I will certainly remain involved. Hopefully, we can implement this project in more countries. The potential and success stories are abundantly present, in any case."
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