Addressing Implicit Bias in the Police Force

9 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

This month, Columbus has been shaken by vigils and protests for Tyre King, a thirteen-year-old boy shot and killed by The Columbus Police Department. A march at The Ohio State University demonstrated campus cohesion with the movement to end racial profiling and injustice. Underneath this, lies feeling of decreasing trust for the police force. Despite the heated climate of the campus march, many police officers were still on sight controlling traffic flow on North High Street to ensure the safety of the protesters and the rest of the public. Considering these protective actions taken by members of the Columbus police force, we cannot assume that they are all uncaring, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t guilty of implicit bias.

In the presidential debate that occurred on the same day as the march, Hillary Clinton brought up implicit bias by suggesting that it  “is a problem for everyone, not just the police.” The simple psychological fact is that many of us are guilty of making poorly founded assumptions and jumping to hasty conclusions about one another. The problem with police doing so is that the decisions they make can have massive consequences– at times determining whether or not a life is taken.

So how do we address this problem of implicit bias? Fortunately, step one – determining the amount of implicit bias someone has – is already possible. The Implicit Association Test or IAT, developed by Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek, is free online at Harvard’s Project Implicit website.  By taking this test, people learn of their subconscious associations of certain characteristics with different races. If implicit bias exists, the test will tell you which race you have a preference for, as well as how extreme the preference is. If police officers were required to take this test, then they would be more self-aware of their prejudice.

The next step in addressing the problem of implicit bias is determining whether there should be consequences for those who have a strong preference for one race over another. Should they be allowed on the police force at all? And if so, should they be kept from highly stressful pursuits where their snap judgements are most likely to come into play? Approaches such as these, although effective in protecting civilian safety, seem flawed in that they promote a new form of discrimination in the attempt to eliminate another. They put certain police officers at a disadvantage in the hiring and promotion process due to subconscious beliefs that they have had little to no control over developing.

If we decide not to discriminate against police officers based on their levels of implicit bias, there are still alternate solutions, such as increased psychological training for officers, more transparency of officer’s actions, and additional connections between the police force and the communities they serve. These approaches are strong because they allow for both cases of explicit and implicit bias to be addressed, and refrain from punishing officers whose bias is only subconscious and unintentional.

First, in regards to police training, awareness of one’s subconscious racism alone can have the effect of making police officers more cautious of how those tendencies impact their actions. This is especially important for supervisors because they can analyze not only how bias affects themselves, but they can also enforce and analyze this awareness throughout their departments. If supervisors find individuals guilty of exhibiting explicit bias then they can take disciplinary action against them, and in instances of implicit bias they can help officers overcome the impacts these negative associations have on their behavior. This includes teaching officers to refrain from becoming overly defensive in the presence of individuals of different races, and in some cases implementing policies that limit the effects of bias on officers’ behavior.

Additionally, knowing that other people are “watching your actions” or have the potential to in the future may have a significant effect on behavior. A study from the Brookings Institute suggested that public awareness of racial bias alone was enough to bring about positive change.  The study analyzed professional referees who were making racially biased calls during NBA games: when these games began getting more media coverage the referees’ behavior became much more fair. In fact, according to the study, the bias completely disappeared. This can be applied to the police force’s actions if the public is given rights to viewing the security films of controversial shootings whenever possible. This will give the public increased knowledge of the events so that it can be determined whether or not the shooting was justified. If it was not justified, then the police should expect to be held accountable for their wrongful actions.

Although important, the public holding police accountable is not enough. As we have seen in the past, release of footage has led to many protests, but little reformative action. In addition to the public, the judicial system must also hold police accountable for their actions. Officers  should not receive special privileges simply due to their line of work. They, like the rest of society, should only be permitted to use violence under circumstances of self-defense. If evidence suggests that the actions they took were beyond the level necessary to protect themselves, then these actions ought to be designated as criminal – leaving the officers liable to prosecution and punishment.

Whether bias is implicit or explicit would not prevent an officer from deserving sanctions for unjustified violent action. Once unjustified violence has been revealed and confirmed, the consequences for the victim outweigh any defense that the officer could give for their prejudice. This is why emphasizing increased training for officers is so important. If training is put into place, the intent is that officers will learn to control their biases so that we can avoid being in tragic situations such as these in the first place. Despite this training though, there will always be times where officers make mistakes, and in these instances transparency must exist to hold them accountable. This accountability puts police officers on an equal level with every other member of this country who is subject to the law and must face consequences when in violation of it.

Holding police officers to an equal level of accountability as other members of the community increases respect for the law enforcement system and allows police to maintain their legitimacy. Another way to do this is by creating stronger relationships between police and the community. “Community Policing” is one way to reduce the bias residents have for police as well as decreasing the bias police have for residents.  This practice involves the police department hiring from the community it serves, and creating contacts with groups in the community. In addition to putting police officers on an equal ground with other community members, this also opens up channels for dialogue between the two groups. This increases mutual trust by allowing officers and civilians to gain a better understanding of the responsibilities and challenges the other faces. The resulting benefit of this interaction is more acceptance and less defensiveness between police and community members when in the other’s presence. With this decrease in negative connotations, we should see a corresponding decrease in wrongful actions taken due to implicit bias.

For cases where explicit bias is present, the response is straightforward. In these instances, the biased individual is aware of their prejudice and acts on it consciously. Therefore, they can be justly punished for their behavior, and removed from situations where their bias would have excessively harmful effects on others, such as in the police force. Implicit bias issues though, require much more complex, long-term solutions such as increasing training for police officers, increasing transparency of the police force, and developing more connections between the police and the community members they serve. These efforts will be worthwhile since they are society’s best option for counteracting implicit bias of the police force while increasing social justice.

By: Allison Hose