Teach Cops to Make Citizens ‘Believe They Count,’ Webinar Told

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Police graduation ceremony, Philadelphia 2019. Courtesy City of Philadelphia via Flickr.

Improving the training of police officers could help reduce disparities in the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, but more research is necessary to establish its impact.

So agreed several researchers and a police official who spoke Tuesday in a webinar co-sponsored by the WestEd Justice Prevention & Research Center and the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University.

Yale University Law Prof. Tracey Meares said mistreatment of minorities by police would be limited by more widespread adoption of “procedural justice,” the theory that citizens are more likely to comply with the law and cooperate with authorities when they are treated fairly by law enforcement.


Tracey L. Meares

As Meares put it, members of the public tend to get along with police officers who “treat them with dignity and respect,” explain what they are doing when making arrests or investigating cases, and generally make citizens “believe that they count.”

Meares cited a study published last year of the impact of a 16-hour training course for 8,480 Chicago police officers .

The training promoted strategies that “emphasize respect, neutrality, and transparency in the exercise of authority, while providing opportunities for civilians to explain their side of events.”

The program reduced complaints against the police by 10 percent and the use of force  against civilians by 6.4 percent over two years.

A similar program in Seattle had mixed results. Officers who received the training were “significantly less likely to be involved in an incident in which physical force was used, but there were no statistically significant differences on the fraction of incidents that resulted in an arrest, the number of citizen complaints filed against the officer, and other outcomes,” said a U.S. Justice Department summary published last month.

Lorie Fridell

Lorie Fridell

Criminologist Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida advocated for “implicit bias training” that is offered to many police officers to help uncover “biases [officers] may not know they have.”

No one doubts that implicit bias exists, but research is mixed on how much of it affects actual police behavior, Fridell said.

She said police response to the riot at the U.S. Capitol last week may have been an example of implicit bias if it is established that law enforcement officers had less fear of the mostly white protesters who invaded the building than they would have if the demonstrators were predominantly minorities.

As reported by NPR, a majority of states now require training of police officers about implicit bias, with New Jersey joining the list last summer.

A study published last year of implicit bias training of New York City police officers concluded that “the training can be credited with elevating officers’ comprehension of what implicit bias is,” said study author Robert Worden of the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety in Albany

But, Worden added,  “it’s fair to say that we could not detect effects of the training on officers’ enforcement behaviors.”

“While studies of these training programs suggest they are well received by participants and that they have produced promising results, knowledge about the long-term effects of these types of training programs on biased behavior are largely unknown,” the Justice Research and Statistics Association concluded in 2018.

A third technique that analysts believe could help deal with racial disparities caused by policing is de-escalation training aimed at helping officers defuse disputes without having to resort to force.

Criminologist Robin Engel University of Cincinnati, who directs the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Center for Police Research and Policy, said that although no studies of the had been conducted until recently, four have been finished in the last year.

The research that has found the most impact of de-escalation training on police behavior is contained in a study on the Louisville, Ky., police  produced by Engel’s center,  which found that after officers were trained between January 2019 and February 2020, there were 28 percent fewer use-of-force incidents by officers, 26 percent fewer injuries to citizens, and 36 percent fewer injuries to officers.

The training course was designed by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF.) The organization’s director, Chuck Wexler, told the Washington Post that, “If every police department were to implement this, I think we would look to save 200 to 300 lives a year.”

He said 85 police agencies have used PERF’s training methods.

Engel told Tuesday’s webinar that some police departments resist using de-escalation techniques because they believe it risks officers’ safety.

She said research is necessary on how citizens who are involved in incidents respond to police efforts.


Tarrick McGuire

Tarrick McGuire, Deputy Police Chief in Arlington, Tx., said that the various methods discussed by the criminologists show promise if they treat citizens with “fairness, dignity and respect.”

McGuire said many black and brown people are apprehensive about contacts with police officers. ?

McGuire described an incident in which his son was stopped by police while driving at night for not having turned on his vehicle’s headlights.

When the son called McGuire to report the stop, he said “you can’t quantify the fear” the two men felt that the episode could turn out badly.

It ended without incident, and the officer did his job correctly, McGuire said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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