The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A look inside the training the White House thinks could stop the police shooting, protest, damning DOJ report cycle

Demonstrators confront police during a protest over the death of Laquan McDonald on Nov. 25, 2015, in Chicago. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There are beliefs and stereotypes inside all of our minds — yes, all of them — that we won't acknowledge or don't realize are there. That's called implicit bias.

Now, implicit bias is one of those terms that slipped out of the ivory tower a few years ago. But the science here is solid. Implicit bias is very real and universal. As a matter of fact, you can take a series of online tests to gauge your own implicit biases here.

For police officers, remaining unaware of their implicit biases can be a dangerous thing, according to Bryant Marks, a social psychologist at Morehouse College tapped by the Obama administration to provide voluntary implicit bias recognition training to the nation's police chiefs this year.

Implicit biases played at least some role in creating the kind of policing in Baltimore that the Justice Department described as unconstitutional and disproportionately applied to the city's black residents, juveniles and people with mental health disabilities. The same can be said about the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Compton, Calif., in late July. Sheriff's deputies claimed for weeks that the man must have been involved in a carjacking that had brought deputies to the area. Sheriff's department officials have just admitted deputies were totally wrong.

In Chicago, a police chief appointed to resolve the many controversies swirling around one fatal police shooting involving a black man, decided on July 30 to strip three officers involved in yet another fatal shooting of their powers. This time, police officers killed an unarmed 18-year-old black man fleeing, on foot, from a stolen car. The conversation between the officers involved in the shooting was recorded. It includes a series of assumptions and statements that border on a shared hallucination. The officers talk about the fleeing man firing shots when, in fact, he had no gun at all.

The ongoing cycle of fatal police shootings for suspected involvement in noncapital crimes, ending the lives of young people of color, followed by protests and damning Justice Department findings, prompted the agency to mandate implicit bias training for all 33,000 federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors in June.

The Fix talked with Marks about his implicit bias training. Marks, who is also part of the Obama administration's 21st Century Policing Task Force, has offered implicit bias training to about 300 police chiefs so far. What follows is a Q&A with Marks, conducted by phone and edited for clarity and length.


THE FIX: Okay, let’s start with something basic but important. What is implicit bias?  

MARKS: Implicit bias is the collection of stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory ideas that often turn into actions or guide them to varying degrees in all of our lives. This all happens below the level of conscious awareness.

Just to be clear, stereotypes are associations between a group and a trait or action. For example, there's a stereotype that all New Yorkers are rude. Those who believe this at an explicit or implicit level may not realize that this idea shapes their related feelings and actions.

Let's use this example. If the stereotype is 'New Yorkers are rude,' prejudice is the feeling of like or dislike based on the stereotype, as in 'I value courtesy so I don't like New Yorkers.' Discrimination is the action that often follows stereotypes and prejudices, which can result in a New Yorker not being hired for a customer service job or welcomed as a neighbor.

Sometimes we're aware of the thoughts and feelings that lead us to discriminate. Sometimes we aren't.

THE FIX: What is the key thing that you are trying to help police chiefs to understand? 

MARKS: If you talk to most people, particularly many white Americans about discrimination, they will likely acknowledge that sometimes people are treated unfairly because of who they are. The thing that many people fail to understand is that most biases, [against] ethnic minorities, function within an ecosystem, an interconnected or interdependent set of biases that lead to multiple types of mistreatment.

When blacks apply for loans [home, auto and business] studies have shown that when you control for financial history and other characteristics blacks who do receive loans get them on worse terms than whites with the same financial profile. If you ask loan officers are you racist you can believe that the answer you will get is, 'No. Of course not.' Yet the pattern stands. The data is there.

The same thing happens with teachers and lower expectations or principals with suspensions. In the medical field, all other characteristics being equal, [health insurance coverage, level of illness, availability of a remedy] studies show that African American patients are more often prescribed less aggressive treatment or pain management. African Americans in the criminal justice system are more likely to be arrested, to be charged with the most serious violations, receive longer sentences or the death penalty than others who have done the same things.

In fact, these ideas are so ingrained that there is research showing that black defendants with more Afrocentric features — dark skin, kinky hair, a wide nose — receive longer sentences than other black defendants. But, if you ask the judge, 'Are you biased?' he will say no.

When it comes to employment, whites with a criminal record are more likely to be interviewed for a job than blacks without a criminal record, all other things being equal. That means the white applicant is more likely to be hired.

You see the patterns again and again when you look at data. The issue is that in each of these situations, the key decision-maker may not know in their conscious mind they are biased, have made decisions based on prejudice and then taken discriminatory action.

That's what I mean by ecosystem. People will try to evade this. They will openly deny that this sort of thing is pervasive. Almost everyone denies that they directly play any role in this. But police officers, just like the rest of us, are part of that ecosystem. The difference is the consequences, what can happen to other human beings, as a result of police officer's unconscious biases. So, law enforcement officers must work a bit harder to address their biases.

THE FIX: What is it that you do in these training sessions? How do you even get started with a topic this sprawling?

MARKS: What I have found is that the framing really matters.

So I usually start by saying we are all biased. We treat family better than friends and friends better than strangers. That's differential treatment and we see that as normal and functional.

I say clearly, we are all biased. It's what we do with those biases that we are there to understand.

As a professor, my biases may lead me to call on one student rather than another. When a bus driver is biased he may not wait for the person running for the bus. But when the police are biased, particularly when they are biased in ways they may not realize, and that bias plays out with a gun in their hand, the results can be fatal.

The goal is to convey, quickly and clearly, that bias is a universal experience. But law enforcement officers need to recognize that when the consequences of their biases are such that someone can die they have a greater responsibility to examine their biases, try to recognize them and then disrupt the link between their biases and their actions.

I start this way because these are Americans and 90 percent of police chiefs are white. So they need some assurance that they are good people, that biases do not make them bad or mean.

From there, we usually talk about ecosystems of bias. All that usually helps to build some trust, to lower the anxiety in the room and creates a basis to move toward really understanding racial bias in policing.

There is almost always someone in the room who by then wants to tell a story about something they have done or one of their officers have done or a story they've heard in which an officer treated a member of another racial group fairly. And that's great. But those are anecdotes. The existence of bias is clear in all sorts of data. And you cannot refute widespread bias and the evidence we have all seen of it recently by using anecdotes.

THE FIX: Okay, where do you go next? It sounds like there would be some tension in that room. 

MARKS: The combination of bias as a universal human tendency with an understanding that actions resulting from police bias can have unique and fatal consequences usually gets people to be a bit more open to what follows.

Some are still defensive, some are resistant, but it gets people talking. Once that happens we can begin to unpack what they think and why.

Then we get down to police practices.

THE FIX: There are a lot of people who will object to the idea that we all move through the world in the company of biases. What do those people need to know? 

MARKS: Okay, some people will be familiar with this story. But I'll try to explain it this way.

A father and son are driving at night on a road that is wet; they skid across the road and crash into a tree. The father is killed. The son is critically injured. He's rushed to the hospital and brought into the operating room. The surgeon comes in, looks down at the patient and says, I can't operate on this boy, he's my son.

Now, most people will hear this story and become confused for at least few seconds. That's true for everyone, male and female. The simple explanation for that confusion is implicit bias.

Implicit bias still leads most of us to assume that the surgeon is also a man. Today we should know that there are a number of possibilities. The most obvious is that the surgeon is the boy's mother. But if you think surgeon equals male or had to force yourself to sort that story out, you now know what implicit bias is.

Surgeon equals man in many minds, even today, because that is what we most often see or see depicted in movies, television, books and so on. Or, at least, that's part of the reason. When you consider that the average American is exposed to more than 1,000 associations between black man and criminal or black man and danger in the things they read, see [and] consume as entertainment throughout their lives, and maybe 20 incidences of black man and PhD or black man and CEO, you see part of the reason that certain biases are so widespread.

You start to see why the image of a criminal is likely to come to mind for some people when they see or hear of a black man, even if they are not aware of the association. But those assumptions guide our thoughts and feelings just like they did your understanding of the surgeon story.

The question is what you do once you know that this kind of thing exists inside your mind. Police officers have to engage in this work in the interest of public safety.

Of course, if an organization is serious about changing biases, I need more than a few hours or a day. You can't undo 1,000 associations of black male equals criminal or black male equals unintelligent in a day. My trainings that last a day or less are designed to educate, raise awareness and challenge departments to engage in follow up activities that will reduce the likelihood of biased attitudes leading to biased behavior.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of consultants out there making a lot of money claiming they can eliminate implicit bias. Don't trust that. That's not how the human mind works.

THE FIX: Wait, are you saying the work you do has no effect? 

MARKS: The research shows that you can reduce it [implicit bias] for a few hours or a few days but there isn't high-quality research that has collected data over the long term, which shows lasting reductions in implicit bias. Most people experience short-term gains in awareness then return to baseline [where they began] unless they consistently challenge their biases over time.

Police can be as biased as [they] want to be. But when you pull me over, I need to be treated like everyone else. [They] need to break the link between biased thinking and biased action.

To help officers do this or commit to doing this, the police chiefs I train can go home and take steps to make sure that department policies do not reward bias [e.g. arrest quotas pegged to a certain neighborhood or demographic group] and that they are gathering data that will independently reveal patterns in the way that individual officers work.

They can commit to making that data available publicly, on their websites [or] broken down to the individual officer level. They need data depicting large windows of time — years. But you can imagine what something like that might reveal.

Bias is more widespread than expected. [Seeing that in the data] may help officers to think more carefully about everyday interactions with citizens.