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Health & Science

Law Enforcement Uncover Prejudice With Implicit Bias Training
Tom Woodward/ flickr

Law enforcement agencies across the state are undergoing implicit bias training to re-evaluate the way they interact with minority communities. But what does the training entail?

Departments are turning to anti-bias training to help officers identify and counteract stereotypes of minority communities. President Obama gave a nod to the approach at a recent town hall hosted by ABC News.

“Police departments that are doing the best work are training their officers not just on shooting, being good shots, not just on the technical aspects of police work. But they’re also training officers about how do we get rid of some of our implicit biases,” he said.

Backed by decades of social science research, implicit biases are basically thoughts and feelings that steer our actions unconsciously.

“So implicit biases are those biases that we might have, attitudes and prejudices and stereotypes, that either we are unable to report because we don’t know about them, or aren’t quite aware that they exist,” said Kate Ratliff, a psychology professor at the University of Florida.

Ratliff also runs Project Implicit, an online clearing house for the research. One of the most common tools for measuring these prejudices is the Implicit Association Test. It’s basically a video game. Subjects sort black and white faces, with positive and negative words as they flash across the screen. The idea is people are faster to sort concepts already linked in their minds.

Project Implicit

“And we use that response time, that difference in how long it takes people to pair positive and negative words with white and African American faces, as a measure of implicit bias. Or implicit preference for white people relative to black people,” she said.

For researchers like Ratliff, the evidence is compelling. University of South Florida professor Lorie Fridell  developed a program for officers based on these theories.

“The key to the training is raising consciousness regarding implicit biases, and also showing through role plays through videos, through exercises, that policing based on stereotypes is not only unjust, it will make an officer unsafe as well as ineffective,” she said.

Business is booming for Fridell’s Fair and Impartial Policing Program. Departments in Tallahassee, Tampa and Palm Beach County are on board, and recently the federal government signed up as well. But as of right now, there’s no established way to measure the results. Researchers like Ratliff aren’t confident that biases can just be trained away. But there is feedback from departments.

“So every employee from the chief to the custodian has had the training,” he said.

That’s Anthony Raimondo, a captain with the Sanford Police Department. The agency adopted the Fair and Impartial Policing program after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Because of the training, the agency is seeking out positive interactions with the community, and not just policing it.

“They can go out to the park and play with kids. They can go to Habitat for Humanity and help build houses, or go to soup kitchens and feed the homeless. There’s countless things we can do. But we track that in a very formal way and then we reward the officers for that behavior,” he said.

But to bridge the historical divide between police and communities of color, Raimondo says the public needs to address decades-old injustices.

“Because essentially we have some unresolved issues just below the surface of many of our communities nationally that are waiting for just one event, like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or whoever, to scratch the scab off of that old wound and bring it back to the surface,” he said.

In an increasingly connected world, Raimondo believes every department needs to rebuild public trust and legitimacy. Because, Raimondo says, interactions with police on the other side of the country can unravel relationships at the local level.