Policing implicit bias

Specialized training for police forces in Toronto, Vancouver goes beyond explicit bias, has implications for broader workforce

Anti-bias training is certainly nothing new, but the stakes are quite different when you compare the average office environment to a metropolitan police force. 

And that training is particularly important in a profession where a negative or tragic incident can receive massive media attention — the 2013 police shooting of Toronto teenager Sammy Yatim and the more recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss., being two such examples. 

“Bias in policing is something that gets thrown around a lot in the public realm,” said Barry Kross, deputy chief of the Metro Vancouver Transit Police.

“Police agencies I think in general… either north or south of the border get painted with a similar brush and you do hear the odd group that will talk about systemic bias and systemic racism within certain police departments. And I’ve always been a little bit offended by that. 

“Whenever anything happens in policing, regardless of where we are, we all do tend to feel that we’re painted with the same brush. And that’s probably the same in any vocation, but more so in policing because it’s so public-facing.”

That’s why Fair and Impartial Policing (FIP), a United States-based organization, has developed training curricula uniquely tailored to training police around bias. 

“The concept of implicit bias is seeping into many professions, and the training (is) in many professions. And what we do... is bring the science of implicit bias to the police profession,” said Lorie Fridell, CEO of FIP in Tampa, Fla. 

“We are educating them on implicit biases, talking about how implicit biases might manifest in policing, what it might look like, and then we give them skills for reducing and managing their implicit biases.”

Explicit vs. implicit bias
It’s critical to make the distinction between implicit and explicit bias, said Fridell. The focus has traditionally been more on explicit bias, but that’s beginning to change. 

“A person with explicit bias links people to stereotypes associated with their group — it might be a racial group, might be a gender group, sexual orientation. That linkage or stereotyping is based on animus or hostility. The person with explicit biases knows it and ‘owns’ it, such that he or she will tell you about it and explain why they don’t like this group,” she said. 

A person with implicit bias still links people to stereotypes, which may still impact his perceptions and behaviour towards people in a certain group. 

“But what’s different is that implicit biases can occur outside of conscious awareness — even in a person who has no animus or hostility towards the group and, in fact, may at the conscious level reject biases, stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour,” said Fridell. “This means even well-intentioned individuals, even well-intentioned law enforcement, can have implicit biases that impact on their perceptions and impact on their behaviours.”

Training program
In presenting training, FIP has five separate curricula for different levels within police forces, she said. 

“One is appropriate either for the recruit in the academy or the patrol officer on the street, a second one is for first-line supervisors,” she said. 

The third is for mid-managers, the fourth is for command staff and community leaders, and the fifth is a Train-the-Trainer Program, “so that we leave the agency with the capacity to train their own personnel,” said Fridell.

In Canada, FIP has done training with the Toronto Police Service and the Metro Vancouver Transit Police, which sponsored the Train-the-Trainer Program, said Kross. The trained members of the force will be rolling out the training internally to the rest of the 234 staff members this fall, beginning with front-line officers. 

It’s important to Kross that his staff will be able to receive the training from their peers, he said. 

“With a topic that can be this sensitive, you don’t want to have somebody from the outside telling you that you have potentially a problem on the inside,” he said. 

“We all have a bias and I think if we could get everyone to understand that — both in the policing world and in the public realm… we all have this implicit bias because we are the sum of our experiences to that point in our life.”

The training around implicit bias is applicable in many ways, to many different workplaces, said Fridell. 

“(But) the difference might be in the specific biases that would cause the greatest risk. So, for instance, in the policing training, there’s a lot of biases that could impact police… stereotypes associated with who commits crime would be most relevant to police, versus accountants,” she said. 

“We also look at stereotypes in policing regarding who might they believe? Would they believe a rich person over a low-income person? So two points come out of that: One, we don’t just look at race and ethnicity, we look at socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender, because when you think about gender stereotypes and crime and violence stereotypes, officers might be under-vigilant with certain populations such as women or such as well-to-do people or professionally dressed people.”

Overcoming discomfort
It can be challenging and uncomfortable to examine our own biases, said Kross — but the more we understand about the nature of implicit bias, the easier it becomes to open up that dialogue. 

“There’s a significant level of discomfort, because the relationship between the terms ‘racism’ and ‘bias’ is often misunderstood and overlapped. And, personally, I take great offence to somebody using a blanket statement that ‘Police officers are racist’ because that makes people in our profession — and I think it would make anybody in any vocation — defensive,” said Kross. 

“The more we can understand the difference between bias and racism, and the more we can create some distance based on that understanding, the more comfortable people will be in speaking about their own personal bias, and how that may affect how they operate on a day-to-day basis.”

That’s why it’s so important to understand the concept of implicit bias, and that everyone — no matter how well-meaning — has some type of unconscious bias. 

“If you spend the extra effort upfront to get that understanding, once it’s understood and accepted, it’s easier to go through and have those other very personal discussion and those very personal look-in-the-mirror moments in training, rather than having them feel that they need to be defensive all the way through,” he said.

The discomfort factor actually comes more from explicit biases, said Fridell. 

“In policing, much of the training has focused on explicit biases and many officers come away believing that the finger’s been pointed at them, and they’ve been accused of all having explicit biases,” she said. 

“So the defensiveness on the part of police around this issue comes from our misguided focus on only explicit bias. When we walk into a room — maximum 30 people — they come in with this defensiveness and hostility, and they change their attitude once they start hearing about implicit biases. People accept this.

“We’re going in and saying, ‘This isn’t about police — this is about all humans.’”

That was one of the most important takeaways from the training, said Kross. 

“It’s so very important that staff understand that the message of recognizing that bias exists in all of us is not an accusatory message. It’s more a message of understanding and self-reflecting on how to make ourselves better at serving the public.”

Q&A with the Toronto Police Service
Canadian HR Reporter posed the following questions to a group of Toronto police officers who went through the FIP training. Here’s what they told us:

Q: Why do you feel it’s important to learn about and confront implicit or unconscious biases — not just obvious, explicit ones?
With the publication of the Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER) report, the Toronto Police Service reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring personal biases are not applied in the delivery of police services. While we have appropriate disciplinary processes in place for situations of misconduct, we know the overwhelming majority of our officers do not act on explicit bias and we must, therefore, look at what else may be impacting their police decision-making.

Q: Everyone has some implicit biases but it can be uncomfortable to confront them. Do you have any thoughts on the importance of facing and overcoming that discomfort factor?
Learning about bias might be uncomfortable, at first, because people often hear the word ‘bias’ and assume that it has a negative connotation. However, in order to achieve change, it is important to overcome the discomfort around this topic. The FIP program achieves this by highlighting that it is very normal for humans to have biases and does not label officers as anything other than human. Once officers understand that, as humans, they too have biases, they can begin to recognize those biases and then find ways to manage them. 

Q: Many different organizations go through some sort of anti-bias training, but why is it important that this training was specifically tailored for police forces? 
While the science of implicit bias deals with human bias, and is applicable to any industry, the responsibilities and authorities given to police officers are unique and extraordinary. Given this, it is important to provide officers with information on implicit biases in a context, and with examples, directly related to their policing duties. This enables officers to bring their unique knowledge, skills and abilities into the learning environment, thereby integrating their previous experiences with the material being presented. 

Q: Is there anything in particular you learned through the training?
One of the key points of this training is we must manage our biases, as well as the biases of others, when dealing with the public and each other. This requires an additional level of vigilance when police managers and supervisors are making decisions with respect to subordinates, for example, in the preparation of performance appraisals. In this context, implicit bias training becomes relevant to human resource management in all industries.

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