The police workforce needs to change—and fast. And so must the way this workforce is trained and developed.
Why? Faced with an unprecedented level of change – from rising citizen expectations, increase in new crime types to the rapid advances in technology – it’s clear that the workforce policing organisations need in the near future is very different from in the past. It will have to be more adaptative and agile, made up of people who can harness the potential of new technologies, be redeployed quickly to new roles, and rapidly acquire new skills to carry them out effectively.
The result will be a reimagined police workforce empowered to serve citizens in new ways to meet their evolving needs, when—and where—they need. It will do this by being highly flexible, constantly learning new things, and always being ready and able to take on new tasks—many of which have yet to become reality.
Creating this new workforce will require more than a new mindset among both leaders and employees. It will also demand a radical transformation of Learning & Development (L&D) planning and processes, ranging from how career paths are mapped out to how, when and where learning is delivered. And as part of this end-to-end transformation, it’s increasingly clear that virtual reality (VR) will have a pivotal role to play.
You might find this surprising. Certainly, if you ask most people about VR today they’ll probably think of gaming or entertainment. But usage of VR is rapidly gaining ground in many industries, ranging from “connected worker” applications in oil & gas to creating immersive 3D simulations in construction. And a growing number of sectors are now exploring the potential of VR to improve the speed and effectiveness of training programmes.
This potential is greater in policing than in many other sectors, for several reasons. At an overarching level, VR is a natural fit for police training—because it’s best suited to scenario-based training experiences, where judgement is tested and problem-solving and quick decisions are needed. These qualities are at the core of policing. VR also offers a safe learning environment, because in a VR simulation officers get second chances, unlike on the front line.
A further advantage of VR is that it helps employees to upskill quickly—another key requirement for policing in the future. According to renowned educator Edgar Dale’s ‘Cone of Learning’, we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear and 90% of what we experience. So the vivid sensory experiences provided by VR can be far more effective than traditional training methods at embedding new knowledge and expertise at pace. For the workforce to be agile, L&D must be agile too.
VR is also applicable to training in a wide range of policing skills. Given the prevalence of VR in video games, it obviously has uses in areas like firearms training. But beyond that it also has much broader applicability in operational police training—not least in upskilling officers in “softer” people-based skills like empathy, judgement and de-escalating tense situations.
As technology continues to drive significant changes in the police workforce, it will become even more crucial not to lose sight of the human aspects of policing and blend these with digital skills. While precise figures are hard to establish, it’s been widely reported that incidents related to mental health account for a significant and rising proportion of the police’s workload.
Dealing with these situations demands understanding and empathy that has the potential to be learned through VR. The power of VR lies in its ability to be scalable and repeatable—allowing not only new recruits to be trained, but also existing officers to continuously refresh their skills without having to carve out significant amounts of time away from their operational duties, and to reflect on their behaviours and ways of working.
The message is clear. For police forces, building a new, more agile workforce to meet the needs of the citizens they serve will require new, more agile L&D. VR won’t achieve this on its own. But it’ll be a vital component in the toolkit.