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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

March 2018 | Volume 11 | Issue 3

Futurist Jason Silva states that “if empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight, then wireless communication technologies can be considered engines of empathy, radically extending our line of sight” (Big Think 2015). The premise behind Silva’s argument is that we tend to offer empathy to only those things we directly see or experience. Thus, technology offers individuals an opportunity to extend our direct experiences, and ultimately, our compassions.

Social Distancing and Empathy

Behavioral economists refer to this phenomenon as the theory of social distance, which suggests that the connectedness of individuals is predicated on emotional proximity. As a result, reducing these distances bonds individuals closer. Bohnet and Frey (1999) suggest, “When social distance decreases, the ‘other’ is no longer some unknown individual from some anonymous crowd but becomes an ‘identifiable victim’ (335).” In short, the more closely linked the individuals are, the more they are willing to offer assistance.

As a result, understanding the ideal methods and mediums to reduce social distances is critically important to bringing communities together. Research has focused on various methods including the effect of class position and human interactions (Akerlof 1997), prejudicial attitudes and mental illness (Corrigan et. al. 2001), and most recently, evidence-based appeals and fundraising (Brown, Meer, & Williams 2017).

Within the last 20 years, purposeful use of and exponential advancements in technology have offered an additional, exciting method to reduce social distances and ultimately extend empathy (Toscos et. al. 2008; Baecker et. al. 2014).  In many ways, developments in technology ha ve always sought to reduce social distances and increase interpersonal connections. The telegraph, telephone and more recent examples such as email and social media all ultimately seek to reduce the virtual distances between individuals. By closing these gaps, strangers become “identifiable victims,” resulting in increased empathy among communities (Alloway et. al. 2014). Therefore, as technologies continue to improve, it is imperative to understand how to leverage them to reduce social distances and bring communities closer together.

Virtual Reality

In recent years, the advent and adoption of virtual reality (VR) has presented even more opportunities to provide direct connection to individuals. Simply, VR is an immersive experience where the participant experiences a digital environment designed to resemble actual life experiences through visual and auditory stimulation. While early versions of the technology were used to introduce users into a purely fictitious environment, current advancements have allowed users to experience real-life experiences, from riding roller coasters to exploring rain forests, to even visiting third-world countries.

Because of this, VR has proven to be an effective tool in empathy-building as well. Philanthropic organizations such as UNICEF, Charity Water, and the National Autistic Society have leveraged VR to further connect emotionally with donors. Instead of traditional pamphlet awareness campaigns, VR allows these groups to put donors directly into an experience, such as living in sub-Saharan Africa during a water crisis. The results have been equally promising. Nielsen found that consumers who viewed VR content were more likely to donate compared to traditional methods (2017). VR is powerful as an empathy tool due to its ability to facilitate connections through shared experiences. These shared experiences could be equally promising for community policing as well.

VR and Community Policing

Developing connections with communities through shared experiences is not new for police departments. Law enforcement and the associated research community have long found moderate success in achieving this emotional connection through citizen police academies (CPA). In a CPA, citizens participate in an accelerated training program designed to expose citizens to the policies, activities and expectations of police officers. Brewster (2005) found that participants were more positive toward police officers and willing to engage in behavior that would help police upon completion of a CPA training program. These findings were largely supported by similar studies (Breen & Johnson 2007; Pope et. al. 2007) suggesting that empathy can be developed between the community and police officers.

VR offers the same potential to facilitate an emotional connection between communities and police departments by providing the former with a real-life, immersive experience of an officer’s interactions. The realism and immersion of VR allows community members the opportunity to experience the variety of scenarios and decisions an officer must make at a given moment, most of which happen in a matter of seconds. Additionally, VR is not restricted by time or geography. Users can participate in these virtual reality scenarios in their homes at any time across the world.

VR training can be reciprocal as well. While it offers community members an opportunity to develop empathy towards police officers through shared experiences, it can simultaneously offer police officers the opportunity to develop empathy toward community members as well. Through deeply immersive VR experiences, police officers can experience life as a community member in the city they serve. Through these experiences, officers can develop skills and trainings based on what it is like to be a community member who is approached by an officer in a variety of scenarios.

Using VR to train officers on community experiences would not be foreign to law enforcement. Currently, police departments are using the technology to train officers in various use-of-force situations. For instance, the Morris County Public Safety Training Academy currently trains officers through VR on use-of-force tactics. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office uses VR to train officers and develop response under stress techniques.

From computer-aided dispatch to body-worn cameras to drones, law enforcement has always sought to be on the cutting edge of technology adoption and implementation. VR represents another vehicle that police departments can use to build relationships with their communities.

John H. Kim
Social Science Analyst (COPS)
Contributing Writer


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Alloway, Tracy, Rachel Runac, Mueez Qureshi, and George Kemp. "Is Facebook linked to selfishness? Investigating the relationships among social media use, empathy, and narcissism." Social Networking 3, no. 03 (2014): 150.

Baecker, Ron, Kate Sellen, Sarah Crosskey, Veronique Boscart, and Barbara Barbosa Neves. "Technology to reduce social isolation and loneliness." In Proceedings of the 16th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on Computers & accessibility, pp. 27-34. ACM, 2014.

Big Think. “Jason Silva: Portable Virtual Reality Will Allow You to Climb Into Someone's Mind”. Filmed April 2015. YouTube video, 2:50,

Bohnet, Iris, and Bruno S. Frey. "Social distance and other-regarding behavior in dictator games: Comment." American Economic Review 89, no. 1 (1999): 335-339.

Breen, M. E., & Johnson, B. R. (2007). Citizen Police Academies: An Analysis of Enhanced Police-Community Relations among Citizen Attendees. The Police Journal80(3), 246-266.

Brewster, J., Stoloff, M., & Sanders, N. (2005). Effectiveness of citizen police academies in changing the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior of citizen participants. American Journal of Criminal Justice30(1), 21-34.

Brown, Alexander L., Jonathan Meer, and J. Forrest Williams. "Social distance and quality ratings in charity choice." Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics 66 (2017): 9-15.

Corrigan, Patrick W., Annette Backs Edwards, Amy Green, Sarah Lickey Diwan, and David L. Penn. "Prejudice, social distance, and familiarity with mental illness." Schizophrenia bulletin 27, no. 2 (2001): 219.

Nielsen. "Virtual empathy: how 360-degree video can boost the efforts of non-profits." May 10, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2018.

Pope, J., Jones, T., Cook, S., & Waltrip, B. (2007). Citizen’s police academies: Beliefs and perceptions regarding the program. Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice3(1), 42-53.

Toscos, Tammy, Anne Faber, Kay Connelly, and Adity Mutsuddi Upoma. "Encouraging physical activity in teens Can technology help reduce barriers to physical activity in adolescent girls?" In Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare, 2008. PervasiveHealth 2008. Second International Conference on, pp. 218-221. IEEE, 2008.

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