Professor’s virtual reality research looks to pave way for more equitable police interrogations of young adults
Hayley Cleary, Ph.D., an associate professor of criminal justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, is using virtual reality to help police, legal experts and policymakers better understand the difference between permissible police interrogation techniques and coercion in police interrogations by putting them in the subject’s shoes.
Research shows that youths’ developmental immaturity makes them vulnerable and more likely to provide false confessions to escape police pressure or appease investigators. The boundaries of this fine line have yet to be fully defined, and courts determine voluntariness on a case-by-case basis.
“Virtual reality is uncharted territory for interrogation research and is poised to transform the way we study these interactions,” Cleary said. “VR enables us to simulate real-world interrogations while also retaining experimental control and ensuring participant safety — it’s the best of both worlds from a research perspective.”
The study, supported by a grant from the VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund, is aimed at informing both law and policy, particularly for individuals of color who may experience heightened disadvantage in interrogations. Cleary’s aim is to help establish equitable legal processes and reform systems for all youth.
Filmed in a Richmond Police Department interrogation room, the VR simulation places research participants in an immersive scenario in which a detective questions a young person using a variety of interrogation techniques. Sitting closely beside the questioned subject and across from detectives, the research participant witnesses the full interrogation. Currently, the research participants are young adults ages 18-25, but Cleary plans to expand to younger adolescents and to police officers, parents and young people with histories of trauma so that they can better understand the experience of being interrogated.
Cleary first conceptualized the scenario a few years ago, but she needed a partner to help implement the project on the technical side. Serendipitously, she learned about David Waltenbaugh, a VCU double alumnus with a B.S. in economics and a M.A. in financial economics from the VCU School of Business.