The phrase implicit bias has been thrown around in a lot of discussions about race and culture lately, especially with regard to suspected cases of racial profiling in law enforcement.
According to Mobile Police Chief James Barber, though, even broaching the subject with law enforcement officers has been difficult in the past because, much like civilians, many don’t care to defend their reputations from a practice they don’t believe they’re guilty of.
Last week, the Mobile Police Department took a closer look at the subject when it hosted law enforcement agencies from across the state as well as Georgia, Florida and Mississippi for its “P.E.A.C.E. training program” — an acronym for “Prejudice, Empathy, Attitude, Communication and Engagement.”“The overall theme was implied bias, which is any unconscious bias people may carry with them,” Barber said. “This was about getting (officers) to look inside and understand the kind of prejudice that every person is capable of exhibiting to see how it may impact their decision making, but also to understand how other people might carry their own internal biases.”
Barber didn’t shy away from the type of bias that is most commonly used to critique law enforcement, either. Racial bias — whether real or perceived — has become an integral part of discussions about police reform in the United States.
Barber said that type of bias could be developed from a person’s upbringing but can also be shaped through their experiences as an officer. As an example, he said a cop patrolling a predominantly black neighborhood might see a young African-American male when imagining a “symbolic assailant,” though he said the same would likely be true for an officer who patrols a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.
Chief said understanding and discussing bias can prevent unfair practices from developing that may disproportionately target or affect one group of people or one area of a community. However, he said it’s equally important for officers to understand the experiences of citizens can also shape their own biases against police.
“Implied bias could be thinking that a group of young black males could possibly be involved in illegal activity just because they’re young black males, which might be a product of someone taking their life’s experiences and applying it inappropriately to a situation,” Barber said. “But, there is also a perception of racism toward law enforcement where a lot of people seem to automatically label someone a ‘racist white cop,’ and that can be very offensive to law enforcement.”
At the P.E.A.C.E. training last week, Jim Glennon served as the program trainer. Glennon has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience and holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in police management.
In 2010, Glennon published a book titled “Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement.”
At the training in Mobile, Glennon elaborated on some of the topics covered in his book including the differences between unconscious, implicit and illicit biases as well communication between the law enforcement and the communities they police.
While Barber said there’s a clear difference between implicit bias and “open racism,” he said it’s often difficult for officers to openly discuss one without feeling accused of both.
“Historically, our training in diversity and cultural sensitivity has failed to be effective because it tended to be offensive to the officers. As you can imagine, a lot of them don’t see themselves as being unfair in any way,” Barber said. “So, we’ve worked to present this type of training in a manner that wouldn’t offend them because if you offend people, they shut down on you.”
Barber said many law enforcement leaders “understand a lot of traditional tactics and strategies portrayed police as being unfair,” but he said there’s currently a growing “desire” to rebuild trust in communities that can often be some of the toughest for officers to work in.
He said it was good exposure for Mobile to host a regional training of this size, and added that several outside agencies were curious about the MPD’s recent handling of a controversial officer-involved shooting — an incident that prompted policy changes and peaceful protests without the violence and destruction that’s been seen in other cities across the country.
“We told them, a lot of that is about building better relationships long before an incident like that,” Barber said. “There still needs to be more candid discussions about race relations in our community so people do learn to understand to see each other from the others’ perspective, and that’s what I think this training can accomplish. In other words, those who see you, what do they see?”