Virtual reality: A reality for crime scene training

The nonprofit National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), in partnership with the University of Tennessee (UT) Law Enforcement Innovation Center (LEIC), is making virtual reality crime scene training available to state and local law enforcement...

The nonprofit National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), in partnership with the University of Tennessee (UT) Law Enforcement Innovation Center (LEIC), is making virtual reality crime scene training available to state and local law enforcement professionals for the first time. For active law enforcement officers who register in 2012, the Investigator-Virtual Reality (I-VR) training is free of charge and funded by the National Institute of Justice.

Brian Cochran, a detective for 11 years, is a graduate of UT’s National Forensic Academy and was among those who helped develop the training. “Overall, the training is meant to be introductory,” says Cochran, who works in the crime scene unit of the Boone County Sheriff’s Office in Kentucky. “It [covers] general things: scene security, searching for evidence, and properly packaging, documenting and photographing evidence—the fundamentals of crime scene management and processing.”

Entry-level law enforcement personnel who may want to become crime scene investigators or forensic practitioners can benefit from I-VR. The training can also be used as a refresher for seasoned investigators, says Emily Miller, a specialist with LEIC at UT’s Institute for Public Service.

From January to the end of September, more than 400 participants registered for the course, Miller says. She says participants have included law enforcement officers, first responders, crime scene investigators, field training officers, rookies and veterans.

Training with avatars

I-VR is an online version of NFA’s 10-week, in-residence program for crime scene investigators. The 10-week in-person training funded by BJA and offered twice a year focuses on evidence identification, collection and preservation, and includes hands-on exercises, lab work and photography.

During the online training, students work with a virtual instructor to learn the tools, processes and skills required to manage a crime scene and find evidence. As they complete the lessons, students become virtual crime scene investigators who collect evidence and document a virtual case.

“This training is of great value, particularly in our current economy where training budgets are being cut,” Miller says. “The need for the training is great, but officers no longer have the ability to travel to training, and their departments cannot afford to lose them for a week at a time. The I-VR training provides the law enforcement community with a vehicle to receive high-quality training for a fraction of the cost. The training is accessible 24 hours, 7 days a week and can be done during ‘down time.’”

Miller points out that oftentimes other online training consists of a PowerPoint presentation with a voice-over. “The I-VR is the first avatar-based scenario-driven training of its kind for law enforcement,” she stated. The avatar used here is a graphical representation of an instructor.

Behind the crime scenes

To create virtual lessons and crime scenes, existing NFA curricula was collected, analyzed and converted into storyboards. Topics covered include:

Crime scene management


Latent print processing

DNA collection

Footwear impressions

In 2009, the National Institute of Justice awarded LEIC a two-year Forensic Science Training Development and Delivery grant. In addition to partnering with NFSTC, LEIC partnered with Advanced Interactive Systems to develop the virtual reality gaming tool. The simulations the company built help students to put theory into practice.

UT’s subject matter experts tested and evaluated the design of the training program in addition to providing consulting in crime scene management, photography, DNA, fingerprints, sketching and mapping.

Virtual training has three modules:

Elements of crime scene management: Narrative writing, oblique lighting, evidence marking, evidence recording (photographing the scene), evidence sketching and diagramming.

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