Can Cops Be Trained to Avoid Biased Policing?

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Lorie A Fridell, former  research director at the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), once believed that  tackling the problem of biased policing meant addressing the prejudices of a few “bad officers.”

She also believed that most cops in the U.S. were well-intentioned individuals who wanted to serve their communities.

Fridell still believes the latter—but she is no longer convinced that the former is true. Police bias, she came to learn after investigating the issue across the country, is much more widespread—and is often present in all individuals—not just police—in ways that few of us realize or understand.

“Social psychologists taught me two important things that transformed my thinking about bias generally, and bias in policing in particular,” Fridell told a conference last week at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  “They taught me the difference between explicit and implicit bias.

“And they taught me that bias has changed over time.”

Fridell has gone on to develop those insights into a practical, science-based approach called “Fair & Impartial Policing.”  She obtained funding from the Department of Justice to produce curricula for recruits, patrol officers and first-line supervisors, and has also developed programs to educate police trainers in how to apply the approach in their own agencies or police academies.

Speaking to participants at the second annual academic symposium organized by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), she explained that “explicit bias” is easy to detect: It’s overt, hostile and deliberate; and usually connected to stereotypical ideas about racial groups.

But “implicit bias,” while still linked to stereotypical thinking, is often unconscious. It can occur even in those who reject bias, stereotypes, and prejudice on a conscious level, Fridell says.

“In our grandparents’ time,” she explained, “[Bias] was more likely to be explicit. In modern humans, [bias] is more likely to be implicit.”

Training Cops to Recognize Bias

How does this relate to police training?  Fridell believes that officers are ignoring the implicit and only focusing on the explicit, creating a “destructive equation” in which it is believed that biased policing is only produced by officers with explicit bias.

Such an assumption has negatively impacted both the discussion of the issue as well as attempts at intervention, she said.

“It produces distortions that harm the relationship between both the police and the diverse communities that [they] serve,” Fridell told the conference.

“If it’s true that there are community members who think that bias in policing is only produced by ill-intentioned police with explicit biases, and if there are diverse communities that think that biased policing is widespread, they end up thinking there are a whole lot of ill-intentioned cops out there.”

Not only that: Fridell points out that if cops think that only officers with explicit bias produce bias in policing, and look to themselves and those around them, and don’t see all these apparently ill-intentioned people, they will then conclude that the problem really isn’t that big, and that they are being unfairly reprimanded.

To combat this perception, Fridell applies current research on bias, which shows how easy it is to “categorize” people without thinking.

“[It] happens automatically, even in well intentioned people, and impacts both our perceptions and our behaviors,” she said. “A perfect example of an implicit bias is the linkage between African Americans and crime and violence. “

Fridell points out that police bias is manifested in things like race out of place stops, income out of place stops, and over vigilance in the use of force.  “We’re talking about the possibility of implicit bias.  Of seeing more threats when up against ambiguous behavior.”

It is that implicit bias that is linked to things like friendly fire.  Fridell pointed out that in 2010, A New York state task force on police-on-police shootings found that off-duty plain clothes officers who are killed by friendly fire are disproportionately individuals of color.

Recognizing What’s a Threat and What Isn’t

Another indicator of implicit bias is threat perception failure, where police think a person is armed and it turns out they are not.  Again, Fridell points to a 2015 study done in Philadelphia that found that this type of mistake of fact is much more likely to occur if it was a black subject.

However, bias involves more than stereotypes about particular demographic groups.

Fridell points out that everyone has what’s called a ‘we/they bias.’ ”

“You won’t be surprised to know that we feel more comfortable with our ‘we’ than with our ‘they’,” she said.

And the science shows we actually see more positive characteristics in people who are in our ‘we’ than are in our ‘they.’”

Furthermore, the science of bias shows that bias can exist within these very groups and that it is exacerbated by ambiguity and time pressure.

“I can’t think of a profession more than police that faces [such] ambiguity and time pressure,” said Fridell.

In her own work, she has concentrated on how implicit racial bias is manifested in police behaviors like stops of drivers, and over-aggressive use of force—behaviors that have often been criticized as racial profiling.

“We’re talking about….seeing threats, when [police encounter] ambiguous behavior,” she said.

Implicit bias is even linked to “friendly fire” incidents, during which off-duty plainclothes officers are killed by fellow officers who perceive them as threats because of the color of their skin or their appearance.

The key to effective training is to focus first on what police should not do, Fridell said.

“For many years we’ve trained police as if they all have explicit bias and it looks something like this: ‘stop being prejudiced, these are really nice people,’  However, as Fridell points out, this presumes that the same bias exists in all officers and, as a result, produces an immediately defensive and offended response.

Fridell claims the success of her training approach depends on going further than the traditional approach which concentrated solely on eliminating stereotypes. It encourages officers in fact to go beyond their “comfort levels” to actively interact with individuals who are outside their normal circle of knowledge:  for example, transgender, homeless, and undocumented individuals.

The more they understand such individuals, the less likely they are to assume dangerous behaviors where none exist.

“What the science tells us is that the first step is understanding our implicit biases, and then once we understand our implicit biases, and if we’re motivated, we can reduce and manage them,”  said Fridell.

Overcoming Defensiveness

However, Fridell also concedes that many officers are either “defensive or outright hostile” towards such training, mostly as a result of their exposure to outdated training practices.

“But then we talk about science,” says Fridell. “And we’re giving them studies, and methods, and results.  And we’re not talking about the science of police bias; we’re talking about the science of human bias and how it can make them less effective, less safe, and unjust.”

By the time they’re finished, she says, the program has received rave reviews from trainees.

Fridell said her approach relies on three key elements:

  • use solid science;
  • tell the truth;
  • Explain to police how they will benefit.

The use of evidence-based approaches gains police trust, and truth-telling promotes change, Fridell said.  This idea is gaining traction in places like Portland, Oregon, where police are using similar techniques to overcome biases towards the mentally ill.

But the bottom line for researchers, she says, is when police learn how applying the lessons of recognizing implicit bias in their daily work can make their jobs safer and more rewarding.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a John Jay journalism staff intern at The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.


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