Police are biased.
It’s a fact. Everyone is.
But as police shootings of unarmed black men draw increasing scrutiny, some law enforcement agencies are trying to train their officers to accept their intrinsic prejudices and work to overcome them.
President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended implicit bias training — featured on the front page of The Washington Post in January — as one method of reform. It’s being offered in departments large and small, including in Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Seattle.
The officers are presented with scenarios — some real, some hypothetical, some even drawn from movies or television. Then they’re asked to respond, or at least confront the emotions that arise.
Police officers make judgments in their daily interactions. They must be poised for the split-second, life and death moments, too. Here are examples, and answers to how some officers responded.
How might you do?
In a recent training near Richmond, Va., retired Palo Alto, Calif., Lt. Sandra Brown and Milwaukee Police Inspector Mary Hoerig showed Virginia state troopers two videos.
In the first, a rifle-wielding white man wearing a cowboy hat shoots a Texas state trooper after the trooper yells repeatedly for the man to drop his weapon. Another officer walks calmly toward his wounded colleague and comes close to the gunman, who ignores other officers’ commands to drop his weapon and eventually drives off.
The second clip shows an officer pulling up to a black man at a gas station and asking for his license. (The class learns later the officer is investigating a seat-belt violation.) As the man reaches into his truck, the officer yells for him to get out and opens fire, even as the man puts his hands up.
“What do you guys think?” Hoerig asked those in the class, some of whom shook their heads in disbelief. “If bias played a role here — again, we’re not saying it did — was it safe?”
Brown and Hoerig told the Virginia troopers that in a controlled study in which participants were presented shoot vs. don’t shoot scenarios, they were more likely to shoot black individuals than white ones. If officers are susceptible to such bias, Hoerig asked, “Who could die here?”
No one responded. Hoerig reframed the question. If officers are slow to identify armed white subjects, “Who is dying here?”
“Cops,” a few troopers said.
Officers are brought into a room where a white man is lying on the ground and several people of color are standing above him. It’s unclear what has happened. A mugging? A medical emergency?
Lorie Fridell, whose Fair & Impartial Policing company travels across the nation conducting implicit bias training, says trainees are invited to walk around and assess the situation.
Generally about half see a medical emergency and half see a crime taking place, like a robbery or gang initiation. What’s going on?
The group, it turns out, was leaving a sporting event when the man had a heart attack. There was no assault, no gang.
“The whole point here is to say, ‘Challenge what you think you see,’ ” Fridell said.
Bias, of course, is not limited to race. In another scenario, officers respond to a mock domestic violence call. They find a sobbing woman being comforted by a man on one side and a woman on the other. Both are telling her, “I am so sorry that this happened. This will never happen again,” Fridell said. What’s going on?
“Pretty overwhelmingly,” Fridell said, officers ask the man to step away. What they don’t know: The two women are in a same-sex relationship, and the female offering comfort is the alleged abuser.
“That helps us make the point that policing based on stereotypes can be ineffective,” Fridell said.
In an implicit bias training for police in Baltimore, Officer Edward Gillespie flashed images of people sleeping on the street in boxes or newspapers while Gary Jules’s “Mad World” song echoed through the classroom. He asked his colleagues to jot down the first thoughts that came to mind.
What might yours be?
The officer responses: “Homelessness,” “poverty,” “crazy,” “junkies” and “beggars” were among the terms recorded. One officer jokingly called out “retired police.”
The point of the exercise is to show that bias can be hard-wired.
A Princeton researcher, Gillespie explained, captured images of people’s brains as they reacted to various stimuli and found that, when shown pictures of the homeless, their brains responded the same as when they were shown inanimate objects .
A market owner has called to report that a woman is sitting across the street from his shop and she might have a gun. The market owner has been robbed several times recently. Officers arrive to find the woman, and soon after they approach, someone runs up and says that the woman’s husband and son have been in an accident, and she needs to get to the hospital immediately.
Do officers let her go? Would you?
What happens? Invariably, Brown said, the trainees let the woman — who is armed — go free. Men in the same scenario have been ordered to stay put.
“Why do you think that happens?” Brown asked, almost rhetorically. “If you think you might be a gentleman, you’re going to have to override that when you’re working, because a woman could kill you today.”
Police can also be victims of bias, trainers stressed. In the training for Virginia troopers, Brown flashed three pictures: one of a man with a suit and briefcase, another of a sultry-looking woman on a motorcycle and a third of a portly officer with aviator sunglasses and a mustache. If you look at the images, what do you see?
The officers’ answers: Of the first image, those in the class said they saw someone with an “office job” and a “great life.”
Of the second, they said they saw an “Instagram model” who was probably riding on someone else’s motorcycle.
Of the officer, they came up with one word: “Racist.”
“It’s the mustache,” one trooper said.
Brown asked: If that’s what they thought about the image, what would non-officers think?
The trainers often invite officers to share examples of their own bias or their encounters with biased colleagues.
One Hispanic officer talked of emerging from the back of a police vehicle, where he had been sitting with a Hispanic suspect, and hearing a sheriff’s deputy say, “You got two of them back there?” The officer said he flashed his badge and issued his fellow cop a warning: “Never assume.”
“It offended me,” the officer said.
Brown said that in 2008, when she was working in Palo Alto, the city was experiencing a slew of violent robberies, and residents were in an uproar. The suspect, she said, was described as an African American man between the ages of 18 and 24.
At a community meeting, Brown said, the police chief promised to get to the bottom of it, saying something like, “I’ve instructed all of my officers to stop every African American male in a congenial way and ask him what he is doing.”
That comment sparked intense news coverage and anger over concerns that the department was unfairly profiling people.
“That’s not what she meant to say,” Brown noted, “but it looked pretty bad.”
The lesson is not just that police leaders should watch what they say, it’s that they should be aware of their own biases, Brown said. The suspect’s description, Brown said, is probably one that officers commonly encounter on robbery calls. But even if data shows minorities are disproportionately arrested for street crime, that does not mean all minorities are criminals, Brown said. If officers let stereotypes get in the way of their work, she said, they will make decisions that are unsafe, ineffective and unjust.
E-mail us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.