Law Enforcement, Training, and the Value of a Proactive Approach Toward Bias

As it pertains to law enforcement, it would be difficult to name a singular problem with more historical, philosophical, or operational considerations than racial bias. Socially speaking, it is an extremely sensitive topic, emotionally packed and politically divisive, like a powder keg inside a pressure cooker. In professional terms, it is something everyone involved in the criminal justice system, from street-level patrol officers to high-level administrators and beyond, must constantly weigh as they navigate their careers. Despite this continual awareness, it is also an “elephant in the room” for many agencies. According to a training sergeant quoted in The Atlantic, topics like bias tend not to come up when officers discuss the job, if only because discussion of the topic may ultimately make one appear as though they, too, are biased.

Most importantly, this divide can sometimes feel utterly unbridgeable and extremely frustrating. These hypotheticals may help explain why:

  • 1. Paul, a black man and education administrator, is driving to work. He is in a good mood for a Monday morning, but that does not stop emotion from flaring when he sees flashing lights in his rearview mirror. It is the third time he has been pulled over in nine months and the first time a patrol car has moved the vehicles behind him out of the way to specifically get to him. He lets the officer know that he is upset by the interaction. Even though he leaves with a warning for a minor traffic infraction, the interaction leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and he feels frustrated about it for some time afterwards.
  • 2. Jason, a white man and police officer, notices a car’s taillight is out as it passes his posted spot on the median strip. The citizen lawfully pulls over, but his immense displeasure is clear from the moment his window comes down. As someone who makes it a point to bring the same disposition to every work interaction, Jason is both aghast and ashamed by the accusations. Though he is certain he did nothing wrong, he thinks of the interaction every time he flicks on the light bar for weeks to come.

For law enforcement agencies and individual officers earnestly attempting to avoid the perception of racial bias from the public, these examples underscore, in very small part, the respective challenges people acting in good faith can encounter during a routine interaction. While the underlying social concerns are unlikely to be resolved in a contemporary officer’s lifetime, training, awareness, and revamped protocol all appear to have potential in mitigating the modern-day effects.

Exploring implicit bias training: A controversial—and insightful—training tool

In his book The Heretics, journalist and author Paul Storr uses advancements in neuroscience to explain the ways in which the brain is built on biases: not racial biases per se, but the kind that allow the organ to do its job with the least amount of ongoing effort. Because the organic computer at the core of our being is “lazy,” as the author puts it, it spends much of its time showing us models it has constructed from experience instead of the genuine article in front of our eyes. An example of this would be someone scanning their desk several times in search of their keys before spotting them right beside the monitor. Perhaps even more important, our brains will go to great lengths to protect these projections, filtering information that runs contrary to the pre-constructed models. Being the organ that interprets all our sensory processing data, it is quite good at the job.

Thus, some of the most powerful biases a person carries may be the hardest to spot — they manifest even if we are fully aware of their existence and make great effort to tailor our behavior around them. They can play a huge role in how we carve out our lives, quietly guiding us to take this job interview and ignore that posting for a field in which we “know” we would not be any good. In a very real sense, the world our brains build for us is the most influential force in our lives.bctt tweet=”While the underlying social concerns are unlikely to be resolved in a contemporary officer’s lifetime, training, awareness, and revamped protocol all appear to have potential in mitigating the modern-day effects.”]

It also means, to paraphrase the Atlantic article, to hold biases is to be human. It would literally be impossible to navigate life without them. While implicit bias training or bias sensitivity training is a somewhat controversial course due to its critical assumptions, it is the biological, hardwired bit of mental laziness that the courses attempt to highlight: the mental tics people of all races hold and act upon, regardless how tolerant they may be.

Done properly, the value of such courses in this time in American history should be apparent. In a law enforcement context, the biggest problem may simply be getting people past the name. As anyone connected to the field knows, officers are subject to frequent criticism and charges of bias. As such, any courses a department makes available should be taught by current or retired law enforcement personnel, as much for the instant credibility they lend the topic as for their ability to marry its abstract concepts to real-world law enforcement situations.

Moreover, they should directly address this concern from the onset, explaining the difference between the science and the topic suggested by the name. In effect, that the topic is about being a human being in a high-responsibility profession, as an officer. While experience-based learning is notably difficult to track positive or negative results from, the New York Police Department’s use of this exact strategy seems to have worked in terms of officer buy-in.

Rethinking the “biased” traffic stop: Potential strategies

If nothing else, 2018’s deep dive into North Carolina’s traffic stop data tells us just how imperfect statistics are as an arbiter of truth, and the hidden implications behind figures that appear straightforward. While reports that black drivers tend to receive more warnings than drivers of other races may sound encouraging, for example, the fact belies another below the surface: a person can only receive a warning if they’ve been pulled over to begin with. To the same point, data from the same study claiming that white drivers received more tickets than anyone once pulled over carry similar potential concerns: the figure may simply mean that these drivers are only pulled over when they’re observed doing something illegal on the roadway.

It is also true that an officer accused of bias after making a good-faith stop has little to fall back on. It is also clear that traffic stops can be used as instruments for certain biases, unconscious or otherwise. As routine law enforcement activities go, few strategies (besides perhaps the stop-and-frisk) are more likely to draw anger and allegations as a result.

As such, departments and individual officers wishing to reduce the perception of bias would be well advised to review policies cultivating all manner of bias — real and perceived, subconscious and overt —and replace them with rules that remove discretion from the equation altogether. In the streets, going with a harder set of criteria can ease individual interactions; in the department, being able to point at a neatly uniform set of guidelines can help stakeholders defend or renounce an officer’s handiwork, depending upon its alignment.

In some cases, this choice may be overt. One Connecticut department, facing claims that officers stopped “minority drivers at disproportionately higher rates than whites,” reevaluated its use of defective-equipment stops as a pretext for drug and other arrests. The drastic improvement in this case must be tempered with original performance (presumably, few departments make 19 percent of their overall traffic activity defective-equipment stops), but the basic lesson applies almost anywhere: if traffic stops are a source of bias claims or bias activity, seek out the common denominator. In this instance, paring down pretext activity and saving the brunt of traffic stops for serious infractions may pay dividends.

Streamlining and standardizing may also have a positive benefit on perceived bias. The American Psychological Association (APA), for instance, recommends making areas prone to bias part of a repeatable, documentable protocol. APA cites federal aviation officials’ use of checklists when determining preflight drug-search candidates as one smart example. Agencies deploying checklists as a decision-focusing tool or after-the-fact coaching rubric can exert greater control over the types of stops made and dictate the rationale used to flip the light bar on.

Of course, claiming all pretext stops are bad because they might be biased is an extreme take on an extremely helpful tool. Who knows how many DUI charges resulted from a driver failing to stop long enough at a four-way, or clipping the line when passing? On the inverse, however, it is hard to imagine citizens and advocacy groups have pointed to this specific area of law enforcement for so long with no good reason. Whatever brings the individual agency to its bias concerns, the traffic stop is a good place to turn the inquiry.

Conclusion: Training tools that support change

As a quick aside, departments overhauling training (or protocol in such a way that new training content becomes necessary) must also pay close attention to the methods used to deliver that training, record its results, capture the content of the coursework, and numerous other interrelated concerns. Checking an officer’s training history regarding a certain topic should not require multiple searches to disparate systems for management to find all the data; on larger scale, determining who is compliant on a mandatory training or certification across an agency or multi-location force should be as easy as clicking a few buttons, making it worth a look no matter how the lesson itself is ultimately provided: produced in-house, given by a third party, or distributed over the web.

With or without the presence of a modern TMS, law enforcement agencies willing to pay direct attention to the topic of bias give themselves the best chance to navigate a world in which mistakes, oversights, and incidents concerning unfair treatment are met with shock and anger by the public. Yet, they may grant officers a chance to review and reflect upon the ways the public views their behaviors. If no departmental stakeholder wants to think in detail about the bad fortune that could befall their department in the event of a scandal, determining a plan to avoid those scandals is worth its weight in gold — the kind of prevention that protects the organization and, with time, creates stronger bonds with the watching community.

Posted on Jul 18, 2019