The exterior of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which is the headquarters of the FBI. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

When the Justice Department released its report on the Baltimore Police Department last week, examples of racial bias were clear:

The police:

— employs “enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans.”

— “disproportionately searches African Americans during stops,” yet illegal items were found twice as often on white individuals during vehicle stops and 50 percent more during pedestrian stops.

— arrests black people five times more than others for drug possession, yet black drug use is about the same or only slightly higher.

What is not so clear is the unseen, but not unfelt, implicit bias that provides the foundation for racism.

Most people carry some implicit bias, which Justice defines as “the unconscious or subtle associations that individuals make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups.”

Justice and Baltimore agreed to reach a consent decree setting out needed reforms, including improved implicit bias training. At the same time, the Justice Department is launching a major effort for its own crew. All Justice law enforcement officers and prosecutors will undergo implicit bias training under a directive issued by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and backed by her boss, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.

“We have been requiring implicit bias training in a lot of our consent decrees for local jurisdictions,” Lynch said in a brief interview following her appearance before a joint conference of the National Association of Black Journalists (disclosure: I am a member) and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “We really felt that if we were going to make that a prescription for local law enforcement, we should also be part of it.”

That means the department’s 23,000 law enforcement agents in four agencies and 5,800 lawyers are being trained in how to recognize implicit bias in their daily work.

Perhaps anticipating pushback, Yates wrote in a memo that “I know that your time is valuable, and that you already devote many hours to various training requirements, but I would not have asked you to take on this additional responsibility unless I and other Department leaders were convinced of its value.”

While the training will be geared to different elements in the department, all of it will begin with the science behind implicit bias, Yates said by telephone. “As you might expect, people can naturally start out a little defensive when they come into this kind of training.”

Yates, who has taken some training, said it’s important for employees to understand that implicit bias is distinct from explicit bias “and that it is something we all carry around unconsciously in one form or another.”

After the science, the training includes scenarios where implicit bias might kick in and strategies to counter it.

Strategies can include providing factual information to counter stereotypes. The Justice Department’s finding that contraband is found much more often among white folks, yet black people are stopped and searched at a higher rate is an example.

That information, perhaps, could have an impact on those who assume higher arrest rates mean black people are more criminally inclined. Studies have shown that black people are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than white people for similar offenses at every step of the process.

“What the science also shows is that the most important aspect of countering implicit bias is being aware that you have it to begin with,” Yates said. “Most people don’t really recognize that they are carrying around the bias, particularly people who believe themselves to be fair-thinking, non-prejudiced folks.”

I wonder if that fits Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former Justice Department lawyer.

He thinks the department is going “to spend a lot of taxpayer money on training for a nonexistent problem.” Despite science to the contrary, von Spakovsky said, unconvincingly, “these claims are based on very dubious, questionable studies…the bias I saw there when I worked in the (DOJ’s) Civil Rights Division was toward whites.”

Perhaps he should talk with Lenese Herbert, a Howard University law professor.

Implicit bias training “represents cutting-edge research,” she said, “that may be enlisted to eradicate the internationally embarrassing and domestically destabilizing scourge of officers killing unarmed Black people in extraordinarily disproportionate numbers and in the face of shockingly nonviolent resistance.”

 

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