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You're the boss at the ballot box this year. In 2020, we are covering elections a little differently, and it puts you in the driver's seat.In previous election cycles, our reporters have gone to local and regional candidates to ask questions about how they plan to serve in public office. This year, we want voters leading these conversations.In collaboration with Illinois Newspapers of the USA Today Network, WNIJ is co-hosting several listening sessions in order to hear directly from voters about what issues are most important to them and specific questions they have for the candidates running to represent their communities. Then, we will ask those questions to the candidates.We will share those responses here and on-air between now and November.We also want to hear from you!Take the survey! Additional support for "You're the Boss" comes from a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

Police Challenge: Acknowledging And Overcoming Implicit Bias

Scott P. Yates / Rockford Register Star
Rockford police stand watch as protesters gather Aug. 7 at Joe Marino Park in downtown Rockford.

Members of the public say the police relationship with the Black community is a top-of-mind issue this election season. This story tackles the issue through the lens of Solutions Journalism, a way of looking at social problems with an eye to identifying ways of solving them.

On average, police nationwide pull over more than 50,000 drivers a day.

Every interaction between a police officer and a member of the public is a chance for that officer to model what good policing looks like. It also presents the risk of perpetuating the mistrust and validating the fears of many people of color when they encounter law enforcement.

With that in mind, Stanford University researchers conducted a study of nearly 1,000 traffic stops made in one month by 245 Oakland, California, police officers. Using a specially developed linguistic computer program the researchers examined the dialogue between the officer and motorist captured in body-worn cameras and analyzed the respectfulness of the officers shown toward the motorists.

The study found that more than twice as many Black motorists (682) were stopped as white motorists (299). It also determined that white motorists were 57% more likely to have heard respectful language such as “sir,” “sorry” and “thank you,” while Black motorists were 61% more likely to have heard less respectful expressions such as “bro” and “hands on the wheel.”

“You don’t have to have animosity or hatred toward another race or group of people in order to treat them differently,” said Charles Hayes, an ex-cop turned philosopher and author. “All you have to do is see them differently. That is the nature of implicit bias.”

Civil rights advocates in Rockford have joined activists, academics and others around the country in urging police agencies to incorporate implicit bias training to help curb long-standing disparities between the treatment of Black and white people.

Implicit bias — feelings and attitudes we hold toward certain people or groups that we are not even conscious of — is thought by some to be a root cause of repeated acts of poor, if not deadly, interactions between police officers and Black people. The proliferation of cellphone videos means many of those interactions are being seen by the general public, sparking civil unrest around the country and prompting calls for police reform and accountability, including in Rockford.

The Stanford University study didn’t merely lend credence to the existence of implicit bias. It also showed that body-worn cameras can be used for more than storing evidence of potential wrongdoing: They can be a tool to improve relations between police and minorities.

Blue bias

Any effort to build an inclusive community as well as strengthen relationships between police and communities of color must include consistent efforts to acknowledge and reduce the influence of implicit bias, Hayes said.

Hayes, 77, of Alaska, served as a U.S. Marine and later as a police officer in Dallas. Since leaving the force, he has spent years gaining an understanding of the human psychology behind excessive police force and the relationship between officers and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. He has also written several books including his latest, “Blue Bias.”

“The double standard in the treatment of minorities by police officers has less to do with hatred than the simple cerebral categorization that happens automatically when we aren’t paying attention,” he said.

Hayes also noted that the men and women in blue are not the only ones who have biases. Everyone, regardless of race or gender, unconsciously stereotypes or makes assumptions about others.

However, unconscious assumptions on the part of a police officer can have deadly consequences. For example, numerous studies have shown officers with higher levels of implicit bias against Black people are more likely to equate Black people with crime or with being a threat and are more quickly to mistake items such as a cellphone or a comb in the hand of a Black man for a gun or a knife. That officer also is more likely to shoot the unarmed individual.

To mitigate the effects of implicit bias, Hayes said, the officers have to police their own thoughts and actions.

“It takes hyper vigilance to recognize it,” he said of implicit bias. “You need a flashing yellow light going off in your mind saying this is a time to think.”

Bias awareness

Lorie Fridell is a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and the founder of the Fair and Impartial Policing training program. Her agency provides implicit bias training to police agencies around the country.

“The purpose of implicit bias training is to introduce law enforcement to the science of implicit bias, discuss how implicit bias might affect law enforcement decisions, and we also talk about the consequences of bias policing,” she said. “What’s really important is we give law enforcement the skills that they need to produce impartial policing.”

There is no uniform implicit bias training for all police agencies. It’s up to each agency to find one that suits its needs and budget.

Fridell’s particular agency offers four different versions of its implicit bias curriculum tailored to the different segments of a police agency: patrol officers, first-line supervisors, middle managers and command staff. Class size is limited to 30 and the participants are seated in a U to better facilitate discussions between the participants and the trainer.

“It’s very interactive,” she said. “There are videos, exercises, small group discussions, scenarios and so forth.”

It is not uncommon for some law enforcement officers to initially be resistant to the training, “even hostile,” she said.

“We tell them that we are not here to talk about the science of police bias. It’s actually the science of human bias, but it impacts all professions including police.

“We walk in and tell them we need to talk about how your mind works. We need to talk about how if you let these automatic implicit associations impact your decisions, you are going to be unsafe. You are going to be ineffective and you’re going to be unjust.”

Does it work?

Janice Iwama, an assistant professor in the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University, said implicit bias awareness training for police “is the beginning of a conversation, not the end.”

She pointed to such training implemented by New York officers. The officers were surveyed before and after the training.

“The study showed it improved their approach and created a foundation for them to accept that there are implicit biases,” she said, “but then a few months later when they collected data in terms of their self-initiated activity they found out that it did not have any major changes in terms of who they were stopping.

“Implicit bias training has been going on for the last 10 years, but only recently have we started to think about ‘How effective is it?’”

The Rockford Police Department does not provide specific implicit bias awareness training, but Lt. Joel Givens said officers are trained in procedural justice, the tenets of which include listening, fairness, respectfulness and trustworthiness.

Each officer, he said, also receives cultural competency training to gain a respect and appreciation for other cultures.

“We also incorporated police-citizens relations,” he said. “That was online training that we did this year. It’s dealing with biases and talking to people with dignity and respect.”

The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department also does not provide its deputies with a course pertaining solely to implicit bias awareness, but department spokeswoman Katie Zimmerman said deputies do receive training in ethics, conflict resolution and de-escalation. Racial and gender biases are discussed in that training.

An implicit bias report by the Equal Justice Society, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that works to broaden conceptions of present-day discrimination to include unconscious and structural bias, perhaps best sums up the challenge to all who acknowledge the danger of implicit bias and who wish to eliminate it:

“Today’s civil rights leaders face a new challenge: to expose the subconscious and subtle forms of bias and fear that exist in us and of which we often are unaware. ...

“Implicit bias is often how discrimination reveals itself today. If we can understand how our brains work, we finally may be able to figure out how to conquer these biases and work together toward a fair and just society.”

This story was produced in collaboration with WNIJ, with additional support from the Solutions Journalism Network.



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