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 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

Photography

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.

Processing evidence at the scene: Instructor avatar-led demonstration of virtual tools, and independent practice using tools, evidence detection, evidence lifting, evidence collection (Independent lessons utilizing all tools are available.)

Training scenarios: Scenarios include an apartment burglary and an assault.

Cory Latham, a Kansas Bureau of Investigation senior special agent and crime scene response team leader, was a subject matter expert who also evaluated the training as a student.

“I was impressed with the attention to detail that went into making sure things were done technically correct, [in addition to]the interaction that you get with the avatar,” Latham says.

He notes, “A uniformed officer briefs you on what’s going on as a first responding officer would…I thought that was very cool.” Overall, Latham describes the training as fun and rewarding.

Miller estimates the training takes 8 to 20 hours: “It’s really hard to judge how long it will take since there are multiple practical crime scene scenarios which require the identification, collection and preservation of crime scene evidence.”

Latham adds, “Students can work on the training at their own place of employment or anywhere, put it down and come back to it later. It’s tough to do that with a mock crime scene.”

Law enforcement personnel who enjoy playing video games may be more at home and quicker in the virtual environment than those who do not. A tutorial helps students navigate the training. Throughout the modules, multiple choice quizzes are given, and at the end of the course, a practical evaluation is done. If students want to improve their outcome, they may retake the practical evaluation.

“The feedback that you get is valuable,” Latham says. Crime scene processing, for example, must be done correctly. “If you try to cast a dust impression using the wrong methods, you will find that out,” he says.

Miller says in addition to improving a student’s ability to document a crime scene and identify evidence, I-VR improves a student’s ability to make decisions at a crime scene. What do they do first? What samples do they send to the crime laboratory? These are among questions students must ask themselves.

To get started, students may register for the course online at www.leic.tennessee.edu/online/ivr.html. After a student’s law enforcement credentials are confirmed, registration is confirmed by email. After all lessons and evaluations are completed, a certificate of completion can be printed. It is a 20-hour, TNN-certified course.

Online crime scene training, down the line

While Latham anticipates law enforcement will see more and more crime scene training online because it is a less expensive option for departments and personnel, he says, “Online training does not take the place of hands-on experience and mentorship. You can’t take this course and think you’re going to be ready to go out into a working crime scene and know it all, but it’s a good tool to learn.”

Cochran agrees the prohibitive cost of traveling for training will move online training forward as a viable option. He also notes that I-VRis a step above what law enforcement has had in the past. “This is much more interactive, with a nice mix of training materials, including videos,” he says.

For more advanced, hands-on training, Cochran says online training could be used initially to make sure everyone understands the basics and is on the same level before students get together with an instructor for more training.

“We’ll then be better able to use some of our hands-on training,” he says, noting not everything can be done via the Internet.

Susan Robertson, UT Institute for Public Service information specialist, concludes, “The benefit is you don’t have to travel to Tennessee and take 10 days away from your job and your family.”

The joint efforts of UT and NFSTC working on Investigator-Virtual Reality earned a Best Collaboration Award at the 2012 BizTech Innovation Summit Awards & Expo.

UT also offers “Supervising Crime Scene Investigators,” a 5-hour POST-certified course online, and plans to add a drug court course.

 

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer and editor specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

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