April 13th, 2024

Virtual reality may help screen prospective police officers

By Alejandra Pulido-Guzman - Lethbridge Herald on March 23, 2024.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDapulido@lethbridgeherald.com

The Lethbridge College’s Centre for Public Safety Applied Research (CPSAR) and Spatial Technologies Applied Research and Training (START), have partnered with multiple policing agencies to find ways to assess decision-making in applicants, recruits and frontline staff using virtual reality.
CPSAR is using virtual reality and immersive simulation scenarios to recreate real-world situations for potential officers. The project aims to determine if a public safety applicant’s ethical decision-making ability can be measured, and the hiring process improved, by using these high-tech tools.
Kirsten Fantazir, president’s applied research chairperson in public safety, said Friday police departments struggle when assessing applicants and that is how the research project came about.
“Instead of just asking in an interview what would you do in this situation or that situation, where somebody might relate it to something they’ve done in the past but couldn’t be verified, we’re hoping to put them in actual scenarios and see what they would do,” said Fantazir.
She said another way people are being tested is through aptitude tests, but they are dated and sometimes are filtering people out that might be really good candidates.
“Right now we’re working with our industry partners and our community partners to make sure that our scenarios are inclusive and reflect a lot of the intersectionalities that are part of our society, so we’re working on the stages to get to the point where we will have specific scenarios.”
Tyler Heaton, industry liaison and research advisor for the START Centre, said the project allows them to investigate the efficacy of using virtual environments to create an authentic sense of performing a task.
He added that the environment is very authentic and feels very real to somebody to the point they can forget they are in a virtual environment and behave naturally, this way people who are using this as an assessment tool can see how someone would actually behave in a specific situation.
“The virtual environment gives us that flexibility,” Heaton said. “We can change the conditions of the environment, we can change the interactions with the characters evaluated, we can have different kinds of experiences that they can’t anticipate and that’s one of the really strong points of this particular project.”
Heaton said they want to remove what they call “game the system” in which a participant takes the rules of the test and uses them to pass the test, rather than the contents of the test to pass it.  
“By using a virtual environment that feels very authentic and realistic, where you can do many different things like walking around talking to people, picking things up, moving things around, using your phone or a debit card, you don’t know when you’re being evaluated and that adds to that sense of what we call a suspension of disbelief.”
Heaton said that sense of presence for the person who is being evaluated allows them to be distracted by their environment, losing awareness of the test and then something will happen that will test their decision-making abilities.
“We get to see how they react. What we’re testing is if it can be an effective way of putting people in those scenarios to see how they react and how they behave; does it get to that level of authenticity that we’re hoping for, or will people still be kind of standoffish with the interaction because it is a mediated environment.”
He said they are developing a few different systems and they are working with some Artificial Intelligence tools that allows them to create conversational interactions that are not scripted.
“That’s a lot of the experimentation. Right now, we are creating characters with very believable back stories and ways of behaving that we can attribute to and then that creates the conditions for the interaction.”
The advantage is that rather than scripting everything where individuals being evaluated can experience it once and know how to use it to their advantage the following time they encounter it, those being assessed do not know how the characters are going to behave the next time around, making the interactions more realistic.
“Another area we’re looking at is diversity and inclusion and making sure that we are accurately representing people in these experiences so that we’re not reinforcing any sorts of negative stereotypes. With a tool that allows you to do something over and over again, which is one of its advantages, there’s always that opportunity to negatively reinforce a particular point of view or a particular way of thinking about different groups of people if those people aren’t represented in a true and accurate fashion.”

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