The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 2 | Issue 2 | February 2009

Reducing Biased Policing Through Training

Biased policing and the perceptions of it threaten the relationship between police agencies and the diverse communities that they serve. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS Office) has supported the development of resources to help law enforcement agencies to promote fair and impartial policing. As a continuation of these efforts, the COPS Office has funded the University of South Florida (USF) and Circle Solutions, Inc. (Circle) to develop two model curricula. The project ”Racially Biased Policing Training,” is being led by Dr. Lorie Fridell of USF and Anna Laszlo, Circle’s Director of Research, Evaluation and Training and Technical Assistance Services.

These two important curricula, one for academy recruits and one for first-line supervisors, will fill a significant gap in resources for agencies that are attempting to address the national problem of biased policing (including, but not limited to, racially biased policing). These curricula are based on social psychological research on human biases, from which we can conclude that even the best law enforcement officers may manifest bias because they are human, and even the best agencies will have biased policing because they hire humans to do the work. While some of the bias in policing is caused by intentional discrimination against people of color and other groups, the research points to another mechanism producing biased behavior. Social psychologists have shown that “implicit” or “unconscious” bias can affect what people perceive and do, even people who consciously hold nonprejudiced attitudes.

Implicit bias might lead the line officer to automatically perceive a crime in the making when she observes two young Hispanic males driving in an all-Caucasian neighborhood or lead an officer to be “under-vigilant” with a female subject because he associates crime and violence with males. It may manifest among agency command staff who decide (without crime-relevant evidence) that the forthcoming gathering of African-American college students bodes trouble, whereas the forthcoming gathering of white undergraduates does not.

The social psychologists studying this phenomenon explain that the “implicit system” of our brain is designed to be “reactive rather than reasoned” (see Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, 2005). It was designed for, and indeed specializes in, quick generalizations, not subtle distinctions. It produces mental shortcuts that can be very valuable for facilitating human thinking and producing human reactions. These mental shortcuts, however, can also produce detrimental outcomes. Researchers have found that these associations or mental shortcuts include automatic associations between social groups and concepts. One example is the automatic or implicit association between minorities, particularly Blacks, and crime. Considerable research has identified this implicit bias linking minorities to crime even in people who test as “nonprejudiced” and are otherwise “consciously tolerant.” This association, as 6 decades of research has shown, affects both perceptions and behavior.

While training cannot easily undo the implicit associations that took a lifetime to develop, the social psychologists have shown that, with information and motivation, people can implement controlled (unbiased) behavioral responses that override automatic (bias-promoting) associations. The implication is that law enforcement departments need to provide training that makes personnel aware of their unconscious biases so that they are able and motivated to activate controlled responses to counteract them.

In response to this training need, the COPS-supported academy curriculum under development will help the recruit in the following ways:

To reinforce the training and facilitate adherence to antibiased policing policy, the second curriculum will help first-line supervisors promote fair and impartial policing on the part of line personnel. Specifically, the training will (1) help supervisors identify subordinates who may be acting in a biased manner—including those well-meaning officers whose biased behavior may not be consciously produced; (2) challenge supervisors to think about how implicit associations might manifest in their supervisees and themselves; and (3) provide guidance to supervisors on how they should respond to officers who exhibit biased policing behaviors. Identifying the appropriate supervisory response to biased policing can be challenging. Not only is biased behavior very difficult to prove through the traditional complaint review system but, for the officers whose biased behavior is not intentional or malicious, “disciplinary” action would be inappropriate. In many instances, there will be only “indications” and not “proof;” therefore, it will be important to convey when and how supervisors can intervene to stop what appears to be inappropriate conduct while keeping in mind the ambiguous nature of the evidence as well as the sensitive nature of the issue.

Al Pearsall is the COPS Office project monitor for the project. The Curriculum Design Team comprises the following persons:

The team expects select recruit academies and law enforcement agencies to pilot-test the draft academy and first-line supervisor curricula in the summer and fall of this year, after which the curricula will be revised. The final curricula, the Trainer’s Guide, and all training resource materials will be available on CD-ROM to agencies nationally early next year, as well as on the COPS Office web site.

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