The Science of Bias

‘Everyone’s a little bit racist’? Here’s something cops can do about it

KSDK-TV/AP Photo

This week, FBI Director James Comey stood before an audience and quoted a song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”

“Look around and you will find, no one’s really color blind. Maybe it’s a fact we all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race,” he said, joking they should be grateful he didn’t sing.

Comey’s point was that he wants cops to pay attention to their own biases, especially in the context of recently tense public relations with the police.

Maybe he should have quoted Susan Boyle instead.

The frumpy singer, who got famous on a British reality competition despite her traditionally unpopular looks, is part of a training program that’s designed to help officers recognize the kind of subtle bias that Comey was talking about. It’s called implicit bias.

“She surprised everybody, nobody believed she could sing, and that was people making judgements about her, likely with implicit biases,” said Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida.

Fridell and her colleagues have developed the Fair and Impartial Policing Program, and it’s far more than just Susan Boyle videos. It has backing from the Department of Justice, and it presents cops with the overwhelming scientific evidence showing how bias is found even in well-intentioned people.

“There is study after study after study. This is not a disputed science,” said Fridell. “Even well-meaning individuals have implicit biases that can produce discriminatory behavior.”

250 agencies across the country have already received the training — including cities like Detroit and San Francisco — and there’s been a big uptick in interest since the Michael Brown case in Ferguson. The training costs anywhere from a few thousand dollars for a group of patrol officers — to $16,000 for a train-the-trainer program for big departments

“It’s really important that officers across the nation be exposed to the modern science of bias,” she said. “It stops shaking the finger at them, and the worst thing that’s said in the training is you’re human like everybody else. Let’s talk about how your mind works.”

Fridell says implicit bias can influence whether cops think someone is suspicious, and potentially lead them to conduct searches or even use force against certain demographic groups. There’s race, but also factors like gender, sexual orientation and economic status. And the biases can lead officers to be under-vigilant and overlook real threats.

But the good news, she says, is that cops can reduce or manage their biases with the right techniques.

One strategy to reduce bias is the contact theory. Officers are encouraged to have positive interactions with residents in high-crime areas. There are also strategies for managers and commanders to make broader, department-wide changes in policy and hiring practices.

But while implicit bias is measurable — you can test yourself here — she says officers should not be screened for it before they’re hired.

“Everybody has implicit biases. What we need to be screening on is are they willing to reflect on their own biases,” Fridell said. “If you give me a well-meaning individual who wants to serve his or her community, we can train them to recognize their implicit biases and reduce and manage them.”

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