Can Better Training Solve Cops’ Implicit Biases?

To change how police interact with communities, we must first transform how they are trained. But can it work?

By Lorie Fridell

Tagged criminal justicepoliceRacism

The longstanding question of whether police are racially biased was put front and center by the events in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014—and, more recently, by those in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights. The national turmoil has left police agencies and community leaders searching for answers. For example, at this week’s Democratic Convention, the “Mothers of the Movement” appealed to voters to help find solutions to remedy the broken relationship between cops and communities. The social psychologists who study human bias and prejudice, I believe, can provide us with some very useful ones.

These scientists have taught us that bias comes in two forms: explicit and implicit. Explicit bias involves holding stereotypes about groups based on animus or hostility toward that group. People who hold these stereotypes are unconcerned about both their biases and discriminatory behaviors. With implicit bias, on the other hand, we still link groups to given stereotypes—but these biases can occur outside of conscious awareness, even in well-intentioned individuals. Nevertheless, these stereotypes may impact our perceptions and produce discriminatory behavior.

It is time that interventions aimed at addressing biased behavior, including among police, catch up with science. We certainly cannot stop our interventions in policing aimed at explicit biases; we need to try to screen out individuals with explicit biases at the hiring stage and, if they get in, recognize their discriminatory behavior and hold them to account. However, the discovery of implicit bias among cops carries important implications, including for training. In particular, there are two types of training for law enforcement that can help police professionals recognize and manage their human biases: (1) implicit-bias awareness training and (2) video-simulation, use-of-force training with counter stereotypes.

Attacking our Implicit Biases

Across the country, traditional racial profiling training programs have been based on outdated understandings about prejudice. Many such programs have simply conveyed the message to cops that they should “stop being prejudiced,” with an emphasis on reducing animus toward stereotyped groups. We now know that this message is ill-suited to most individuals, including most police, who may not hold explicit prejudices. Further, and more importantly, individuals receiving such messages may be offended—creating a pushback against any future efforts.

A better method has been found in the adoption of implicit-bias awareness training like the Fair and Impartial Policing (FIP) program, which provides training for law enforcement. Implicit-bias awareness programs, such as FIP, can train officers on the effect of implicit bias and give them the information and skills they need to reduce and manage it. These programs use curricula that address not just racial or ethnic bias, but also biases based on other factors such as gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, and so forth. Regardless of which bias is being targeted, the curricula convey these fundamental principles:

  • All people, even well-intentioned people, have biases;
  • Biases can be “implicit,” thus influencing choices and actions without conscious thinking or decision-making;
  • Policing based on biases or stereotypes is unsafe, ineffective and unjust.
The Impact of Use-of-Force Simulator Training

In addition to bias-awareness training, agencies need to provide scenario-based, use-of-force judgment training that conditions officers to focus not on demographics, but on indicators of threat. Two implicit bias concepts—exposure to counter stereotypes and the role of ambiguity—can be used to explain the potential of this bias-reducing training. In modern, state-of-the-art, use-of-force training, officers “role play” while interacting with one or more individuals in video scenarios. The officer must determine whether or not the person in the scenario is a threat and, if the person is a threat, the appropriate amount of force to use.

The individuals who turn out to be a threat in a given scenario must be just as likely white as black, just as likely female as male, just as likely old as young, and so forth. With prolonged exposure to these counter stereotypes over time, the law enforcement officer should learn that demographics are “non-diagnostic” in terms of threat, and the officer should instead redirect his focus to different clues, such as placement of hands and other subject behavior. Laboratory studies indicate the potential value of this exposure for removing the effect of demographics—and the associated stereotypes—from split-second decisions regarding the use force.

To be as effective as possible, research on implicit bias indicates that scenarios should place these counter stereotypes in ambiguous-threat situations. Biases and stereotypes are most likely to impact behavior when individuals are facing ambiguous stimuli. If the threat in a police-training scenario is unambiguous—for instance, an officer enters a room and finds herself facing a person with a gun pointed at her—it is unlikely that demographics or stereotypes will factor into her decision. It is instead when the threat is ambiguous that the risk of implicit biases impacting behavior is greatest.

An example is the 2014 shooting by a South Carolina trooper of a young black male whom the trooper had pulled over for a traffic violation. After the man exited the car, the officer asked for his driver’s license and the young man quickly turned and reached into the car. The officer, in fear, fired his weapon at the young man. This ambiguous behavior on the part of a black male produced perceptions of threat; likely if a white woman had acted the same way, the perception (and outcome) would have been vastly different.

Many agencies now use video scenarios for their use-of-force judgment training and some of the videos used within those training programs place counter-stereotypical stimuli in ambiguous-threat situations. The key question currently facing police and community leaders, however, is are these training resources being used sufficiently to produce the effect that both theory and preliminary research says is possible?

Unfortunately, fewer than half of police agencies have access to video-simulator training and, of those that do have access, the level of exposure to scenarios for in-service officers (versus recruits) is very low. Six in ten of the agencies that currently have these resources expose their officers to fewer than four scenarios annually, while a quarter expose their officers to just one scenario a year. And those scenarios to which these officers are exposed may not contain the requisite elements discussed above: counter stereotypes, placed in ambiguous-threat situations

Arguably, the most pressing issue facing communities today is the breach of trust between police and residents of these communities, based, in large part, on concerns about bias in police decision-making. This issue is not new. However, social psychologists have, thankfully, advanced our efforts at addressing it through their crucial discoveries and exploration of implicit bias. Their work can inform our thinking about the way police should be trained, and may prove crucial in addressing these biases at the root of so much tragedy.

Read more about criminal justicepoliceRacism

Lorie Fridell is on faculty in the Criminology Department at the University of South Florida. She is a national expert on biased law enforcement and trains state and local law enforcement leadership in the United States and Canada in “Fair and Impartial Policing.” Her most recent book (Springer 2016) is Producing Bias-Free Policing: A Science-Based Approach.

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