Baltimore police officer Edward Gillespie flashed a picture of a sneering man wearing a turban and asked a classroom of fellow officers, “Who is he?”
“A terrorist,” “Muslim,” “Taliban,” various members of the class responded.
“Could he be special forces?” Gillespie asked.
“ISIS special forces,” someone joked.
As some in the class chuckled, Gillespie pressed his point. In an experiment in which college students were told to shoot a gunman — and not shoot the unarmed — participants were more likely to pull the trigger on those wearing hijabs or turbans. Later, he gave a real-life example: In a shooting in Las Vegas, he said, a man trying to intervene overlooked a woman who was involved in killing two police officers, only to have the woman turn the gun on him.
The officers had come together for the department’s newest training initiative: a frank discussion of their own biases. Over the next few hours, they talked about race, age, gender — even dress — and how these change the way they act on the job.
By relying on bias, Gillespie asked, “that can degrade our safety, and it can also degrade what?”
“Our whole department,” an officer responded.
As the shooting of unarmed black men by police officers has drawn increased scrutiny nationwide, local police departments are increasingly turning to “implicit bias training” in hopes of helping their officers recognize their prejudices and develop strategies for enforcing the law equitably in spite of them. The idea is that simply understanding your biases can help you overcome them and make more informed judgments.
Recommended by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as one way police departments can reform, the training has been offered in departments large and small, including in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Seattle. The Virginia State Police intend to roll bias training out to all troopers and new recruits in February, and the Prince George’s County, Md., police department is developing its own version. Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) hopes to offer four training sessions this year so that smaller departments might be able to send their officers to it.
Lorie Fridell, whose Fair & Impartial Policing company travels across the nation conducting such training, said the firm is booked many months out, and the schedule is filling fast.
“I’m actually receiving a request per business day,” she said.
In the Baltimore class, Gillespie asked officers to consider that when they encounter someone on the street, they have limited information — a person’s race, general age and perhaps a distinctive style of dress. Their biases, Gillespie said, fill in the rest.
The lesson did not encounter much resistance — though not all regarded bias as inherently bad.
“It’s definitely part of policing,” one officer said. “You have to survive.”
Science on implicit bias is not new, and police departments are not alone in offering bias training. Facebook, for example, unveiled a program on the topic for employees last year. Cmdr. Daniel Hickson of the D.C. police training academy said the city has been offering the instruction for some time.
But calls for reform by members of the Black Lives Matter movement and others have pushed implicit bias training to the forefront of the national conversation on law enforcement practices.
Obama recently addressed bias by police in his own life, talking about times he’d been pulled over while driving. “Most of the time I got a ticket, I deserved it,” he said in an October speech to police chiefs. But, he said, “there were times where I didn’t.”
“There are a lot of African Americans, not just me, who have that same kind of story of being pulled over, or frisked, or something. And the data shows that this is not an aberration,” Obama said.
Fridell said she developed a curriculum in 2008 or 2009, though she expanded it in 2011 or 2012 and has seen an increase in demand since the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
Capt. Matthew Hanley, who runs the Virginia State Police’s Training Division, said officials there decided to implement the training with Fridell’s company to “get out in front” of possible mishaps.
“We’ve been fortunate in Virginia. We haven’t had any real high-profile incidents. But certainly, we watch the news, too,” Hanley said.
The class is reliant on scientific studies and designed to appeal to law enforcement. In recent training near Richmond, instructors showed videos of real police shootings — one in which an officer was shot after disregarding a white suspect and another in which an officer opened fire seemingly without provocation on a black man he had confronted over a seat-belt violation. Retired Palo Alto, Calif., Lt. Sandra Brown repeatedly appealed to the troopers’ desire to come home at the end of their shifts, telling them policing based on stereotypes could be unsafe, say, if they overlooked a woman carrying a weapon.
“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,” Brown said. She added that civilians could be biased against the police, and positive interactions between the two could help reduce those biases.
That is not to say the training is universally endorsed. Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said that while D.C. officers already get such instruction and he is generally supportive of “more training and more information,” he was skeptical of bringing in outsiders who might be unfairly critical of officers.
“To say that the police officers’ actions are a result of implicit bias, I don’t know that that’s true,” Burton said.
Measuring the success of the training is difficult. Experts say it is too simplistic to use citizen complaint numbers because factors far beyond implicit bias might influence those. Fridell said she tried unsuccessfully to get funding for a controlled evaluation of her course, but based on satisfaction surveys and other anecdotes, she feels the training works.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said that even if you cannot quantify its success, he thinks implicit bias training is more effective than traditional cultural diversity training.
“I think this is a very different approach and a useful approach,” Wexler said.
Baltimore police Maj. Marc Partee, who runs training and professional development for the department, said he is optimistic the training will help the city move away from the climate that sparked riots after 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death in April. Gray had suffered a severe neck injury in police custody and died a week later. While it is hardly an indication of the success of bias training, there was not similar unrest when a mistrial was declared in the case of the first officer to go on trial in connection with Gray’s death.
“You can’t make that connection with your community until you recognize that there is bias,” Partee said in an interview before the trial began.
The class in Baltimore came on the eve of that trial to determine whether one of their own was responsible for Gray’s death. Gillespie — who holds a master’s degree from John’s Hopkins and has trainees discuss the philosopher Plato as well as Richard Wright’s book “Native Son” in a related course — asked probing questions about the officers’ biases and offered personal stories about his own.
On this much, the officers seemed to agree: All were biased in some way. But, some wondered, was a candid conversation about those biases productive? Was the scrutiny they were under causing them to soften up, reducing their effectiveness on the job?
“You see what happens. Look at the crime rate!” officer Steven Angelini exclaimed, noting the city had recently reached the grim milestone of 300 homicides. “You can’t win.”
“Totally disagree,” countered drug unit detective Corey Jennings. “Crime goes in waves. It has nothing to do with the police. It is what it is.”
One officer noted that the lesson, in some ways, ran counter to their academy training. There, they were told not to talk to people unless they called you, or you needed to move them off a street corner. Here, they were being told to have positive interactions with people to help overcome bias.
“Our job is not nice,” one officer said. “Most of the time we come into contact with people, it’s for the wrong reasons.”
They also commented on the climate in the country, in which police officers are facing increasing public criticism. Angelini said that in his 10 years in the department, he had never seen residents “hating us so much.”
“It’s crazy,” he said. “There’s no respect.”
His colleagues pushed him to consider that society was more hostile generally, not just toward police. Afterward, Angelini said he appreciated the class and others that might help him better interact with those he polices.
“We learn a lot,” he said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.