The discussion of implicit bias in law enforcement can be provocative to individuals employed in all aspects of the criminal justice system. However, when we take a hard look at implicit bias and the strategies to reduce its impact, we can start to feel more positive about the changes that can take place to ensure that fairness is granted to all.
What is implicit bias?
According to the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, “implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control. Can be either positive or negative. Everyone is susceptible.” In the state of Ohio, it has already proven to be a topic that is being addressed in police training academies. In December 2015, Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine announced changes in police training requirements. Atty. Gen. DeWine stated that more hours would be dedicated to reducing implicit bias in law enforcement. With this directive, he formally acknowledged the hidden biases that we all bring to our daily lives, no matter how we are employed.
There has been a great deal of research suggesting that when one looks at racial disparities in the criminal justice arena, one is obligated to look at the potential of implicit bias affecting interactions with minority groups. By ignoring the topic, we simply perpetuate the patently false notion that law enforcement professionals do not want to treat individuals with the fairness and respect that they deserve.
Over the past few years there have been some very significant findings concerning implicit bias and law enforcement. A recent study (Brayer, 2015) found that by discussing race during judicial proceedings, one can mitigate the negative effect of implicit biases during the jury selection process. The author of this study suggested that by examining racial topics directly, one can create more objective juries. Another article (Lustbader, 2015) concluded that “cross-cultural communication and reductions in implicit bias can be accomplished through education about diverse groups, being critical about one’s objectivity, awareness of implicit bias, improve decision-making, and through reflecting on the decision-making process.”
As it pertains to police officers, there has been a great deal of research on the concept of shooter bias which refers to how implicit bias relates to Blackness and guns in the United States, can impact the speed and accuracy of the decision to shoot or not. One major study (Mekaw, Bresin, and Hunter, 2015), looked at the concept of White fear which is defined as a White participant’s fear of non-White individuals. Findings indicated that “high amounts of White fear predicted a lower threshold for shooting Black individuals compared to White and Asian individuals on the simulated shooter task.”
Without question, the whole field of implicit bias is complex. We cannot only look at the potential of negative bias against Black individuals but also the potential favoritism of White individuals. Richardson (2015), elaborated on how pro-White bias can allow Whites to be seen as generally more law-abiding, which may contribute to Whites’ immunity to issues of police brutality, even when their behavior may be ambiguously criminal. Richardson also stated that implicit pro-White bias might lead to the existence of fewer mistakes in shooter tasks where Whites may be holding either a gun or a wallet.
Given these findings, it is easy to become disheartened and conclude that not much can be done about implicit bias in law enforcement. However, this is an incorrect assumption to make. R. J. Smith (2015) looked at the impact of implicit bias training in police departments and whether they were effective at reducing racial disparities in police work. He found that race neutral policies were successful in reducing racial bias in policing. Beyond implicit bias involving race, Smith also looked at implicit bias involving what is termed the “masculinity threat.” “Masculinity threat” is defined as male police behaving more in line with masculine stereotypes in scenarios when they feel threatened. Smith concluded that “policies that took masculinity threat into account, such as having a different officer arrest a suspect, rather than the one who chased them down, reduced overall use of force as well as racial disproportionality in use of force.” Given this last finding, Smith suggested incorporating structural regulations as well as implicit bias training into departmental procedures to reduce racial disproportionality in policing.
So, what can we do to help reduce implicit bias in law enforcement and all aspects of life? First, we can end the debate of whether implicit bias exists or not. It does, and to simply discount it does everyone a disservice. In a Harvard Business Review article (Soll et. al., 2015), the authors correctly state that “cognitive biases muddy our decision-making. We rely too heavily on intuitive, automatic judgments, and even when we try to use reason, our logic is often lazy or flawed. “They state the cause in very practical terms – “instead of exploring risks and uncertainties, we seek closure- it’s much easier. This narrows our thinking about what could happen in the future, what our goals are, and how we might achieve them.” What solution do they offer? They suggest that “by knowing which biases tend to trip us up and using certain tricks and tools to outsmart them, we can broaden our thinking and make better choices.”
What causes us to sometimes make the incorrect decision? We are often overconfident in the solution we implement. What leads to this overconfidence? We weight too heavily the information we have and, more importantly, we have difficulty framing the problem in a different way. We can combat this overconfidence by slowing down our decision-making when we can. One can’t be naïve and state that in critical situations law enforcement professionals have a great deal of time to ponder their decisions. In these more critical situations, they are making split-second decisions. If possible, a great first step is to not place oneself into a situation where one is forced to make that quick decision. If there is an opportunity to observe the suspect instead of immediately confronting them, one can then have that extra time to more appropriately weight the information in hand. Also, more importantly, with this extra time, one can think of alternative solutions that may not include the use of deadly force. Also, in route to a scene, officers would be well advised to consult with a senior officer or supervisor in thinking about multiple ways to handle the specific situation. Having a different perspective as well as having multiple options to choose from, can often give the responding officer more options once on scene.
Also, in field training, officers can be instructed in the use of checklists to mentally go through when faced with specific critical situations. These checklists need to be embedded into each officer’s thinking to limit the potential of them forgetting these important protocols. In the heat of the moment, it is very common to forget standard operating procedures so the more that these protocols are emphasized, the more likely the officer will go through that mental checklist once on scene.
In this discussion of implicit bias, it is important to remember that all of us have biases about different things in our lives. The most intelligent individual will have the propensity toward bias in their judgment. It is not a character flaw but simply a fact of being human. However, that does not give us the right to simply sweep implicit bias under the rug. Implicit bias training has proven to be effective in agencies across the country. When law enforcement personnel are given this training, implicit biases’ negative effects decrease in the field. The first step is for all of us to admit that we can be biased in our judgments. Once we admit this to ourselves we can then be on the road to counteracting the negative impact of implicit bias in both our professional and personal lives.
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