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Police Officers Debate Effectiveness Of Anti-Bias Training


We've been covering stories about race and policing, stories inspired by a recent speech by FBI Director James Comey. He talked about the danger of mental shortcuts that lead to biased policing. The Justice Department is now encouraging departments to implement anti-bias training, especially in departments that are already under scrutiny. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, this kind of training isn't always welcomed, especially by the officers.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The police department in the Seattle suburb of Kent, Wash., has just embarked on a training program called Fair and Impartial Policing.

LORIE FRIDELL: When is it OK to use race, ethnicity, religion, gender to make law enforcement decisions and when is it not OK?

KASTE: Lorie Fridell strides around the room, clicking through PowerPoint slides as she goes. Fridell is a criminology professor and one of the most well-known figures in this field. She runs a business giving these seminars to police departments, and lately, business is booming.

FRIDELL: I mean, the demand for Fair and Impartial Policing started to increase in 2013, really on a geometric trajectory in 2014, and then with Ferguson, absolutely, we're getting a lot more requests.

KASTE: Fridell's program tries to teach police officers to recognize their own implicit biases - that is, the biases that they don't realize they have. They do role-playing - simulated police calls in which the officers jump to the wrong conclusions about who the real troublemakers are.

FRIDELL: The message is, policing based on stereotypes and biases can be ineffective. The other parts of our mantra is, policing based on stereotypes is unsafe and it's also unjust.

KASTE: But does this kind of training really work? Can you change the way a cop thinks about the world with role-playing sessions?

ROBERT HOLLIS: I just really think that they're dumb.

KASTE: This is Kent Police Sgt. Robert Hollis. He hasn't done Fridell's program yet, but as he sits in a coffee shop on his day off, he recalls all the other diversity training that he's gone through over the years.

HOLLIS: Role-play away, I'll jump through the hoops if that's what you want me to do. But, you know, I would much rather be out there on the street trying to police and trying to protect the community that I work for.

KASTE: He thinks these programs tend to be political, mostly about community relations. He says racial bias exists and should be avoided, but people also have to be realistic about how policing works, especially for someone like him, who works patrol on the graveyard shift.

HOLLIS: We need some biases in this line of work, number one, just to keep us alive. And sometimes those biases means putting people in particular boxes and everything like that to try and figure out, all right, well, what do I have here? It doesn't mean that I go and pull my firearm out. And I'm looking at the whole situation as opposed to just the person on the street.

KASTE: And in case you're wondering, Sgt. Hollis is black. But what he was talking about there - about how a cop might suspect someone based on a bias but then steps back and makes sure he gets the full picture - that echoes some interesting research on this topic at the University of Colorado.

JOSHUA CORRELL: My name is Joshua Correll, and I study racial bias, particularly racial bias in the way we perceive threats.

KASTE: In his research, Correll has people play a shoot/don't-shoot video game to measure their bias. And make no mistake, he says, bias is real.

CORRELL: Oh my gosh, absolutely. The pattern of bias is very robust and very prevalent. People are much more likely to shoot a black target than a white target, regardless of what he's holding, and they're much faster to shoot an armed black target than they are to shoot an armed white target.

KASTE: But he says police officers are a little different. They still display bias, but when they're experienced police, they seem better able to compensate somehow.

CORRELL: They hesitate for a second when it's a black guy with a cellphone, but then they ultimately say, no, no don't shoot. He's got a cellphone.

KASTE: Correll credits police training for this - technical training, not racial bias training. Would bias training also help? He says there's a chance it might actually backfire.

CORRELL: There are a number of very compelling studies that show that if you just ask somebody to try really hard to not show racial bias, you can actually inadvertently increase racial bias.

KASTE: He says there just hasn't been enough research yet to really judge the long-term effects of bias training on police. But the pressure for the training is growing. Leaders of minority communities are impatient for change, and for good reasons, says Edward Donalson III. He's the pastor of a black church in Kent, and he says police bias is a constant problem.

EDWARD DONALSON III: We've had members of our congregation stopped on their way to church and treated poorly. I've been on the phone with members who have set the phone in the car while they had encounters with the police so that they would have a witness.

KASTE: But Donalson praises the police for setting up this anti-bias training. He calls it an excellent start. And that might be the most immediate benefit of the training. It's a kind of civic insurance policy. The police chief in Kent is Ken Thomas, and he says the fact that this training happened should make things easier the next time one of his officers is involved in a controversial shooting. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.