Identify and eliminate implicit bias among American law enforcement

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After the murder of George Floyd at the end of last month, the news that former cop Derek Chauvin had been arrested and recently accused with second degree murder was undoubtedly a positive development. Many national figures, including former presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Saw it as a sign of progress and a “first step towards justice”. Even though many, including Mr Floyd’s family feel the charges are too minor and instead favor first degree murder charges for the accused, this is a major improvement over previous cases of police brutality. For example, a grand jury even refused to charge former cop Darren Wilson for murder in the infamous Michael Brown shooting in 2014.

However, even though Chauvin is found guilty on all counts and jailed for as long as possible, who is currently 40 years old, there is no indication that the senseless police violence that claimed the lives of not only Mr. Brown and Mr. Floyd, but many others, will end. In 2017 alone, the police killed 19 unarmed black men. In 2015, they killed 36 human beings. Doing justice to him alone is not enough. It is not enough to protest and loot the streets. For there to be real change, the U.S. justice system must pass institutional reforms, especially reforms to how police departments train officers how to treat black Americans.

In 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray from fatal spinal cord injuries that the media attributed to a rough ride in a police van, The Daily Show comedy talk show with Trevor Noah published a segment titled “Are All Cops Racist?” Where correspondents Jordan Klepper and Roy Wood Jr. interviewed several law enforcement officials and academics to learn about the source of the relentless police violence against black Americans. One person they spoke to, Dr. Phillip Goff, an associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles and an expert in criminal justice reform, stood out in his assessment of the sources of police brutality by attributing the violence to “implicit prejudices” held by the police. Those implicit biases result in the inability for police officers to distinguish between black Americans as victims, perpetrators or spectators at a potential crime scene and the ubiquitous harmful stereotypes suggesting that black people are more likely to engage in violence or crime. In other words, police officers are aware of the same stereotypes that, according to Dr. Goff, “almost everyone” have, and may know that they are incorrect and morally wrong. However, being active in very stressful environments exacerbates these biases to the point where they become an automatic, and often fatal, assumption of aggression that trumps better judgment.

Dr. Goff is not the only scholar to make this point. One earlier to study at the University of Colorado in 2002, where participating undergraduates had to identify the object that blacks and whites were holding in their hands, and then decide whether or not to shoot, supported Dr Goff’s statements. Researchers at the University of Colorado found that participants shot gunned blacks faster and took longer time intervals to decide not to shoot unarmed black subjects. Subsequent studies verified these results and suggested that “stigma crept in when officers were under mental stress”. Even studies dating back to 2001 have found that “police and civilians are consistently more likely to associate black faces with crime.”

While racist notions of universal black crime among Americans are highly undesirable, law enforcement must be held to a higher standard than ordinary civilians, making police perceptions of stereotypes of black Americans even more unacceptable. But the question remains: how to reverse and / or eliminate these implicit biases? The the most important thing to know about implicit biases is that they are extremely difficult to eliminate despite “the best of intentions.” This is because they have essentially been wired into law enforcement from childhood, and while the police learn the importance of fairness and equality in a theoretical setting, their biases can often recur. surface as a reflective action in a high stress situation. In order for police racism to be effectively combated, more practical solutions must be introduced.

The Salt Lake City Police Department is launching an educational program, teaching its police forces to confront their biases by teaching not only the importance of restraint when it comes to confrontations on the spot. They also encourage officers to discuss and reflect on their own experiences and become aware of how they acquired their biases in the first place and, therefore, how to counter them as well. The New York City Police Department has invested $ 4.5 million in a similar program.

While the launch of these programs is certainly a step in the right direction, the effectiveness of these initiatives is is still not clear. They are only a few years old, so their true impact remains to be seen and the novelty of these programs means that there is a “lack of standards” regarding what should and should not be taught. Having varying curricula across the country on addressing police bias can also lead to uneven results nationwide. In addition to training in implicit bias, more minorities, especially black Americans, should also be inducted into law enforcement to increase racial diversity.

However, just because a police force is more diverse does not necessarily mean it is less prone to stereotypes. At least two of the Minneapolis Police Department officers implied in the murder of Mr. Floyd, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Keung, are themselves minorities. This suggests that these biases extend beyond the vilified presence of white privilege, a factor blamed by many for much of the apathy surrounding the police killings of blacks. Although the solutions may vary, the problem, unfortunately, remains the same. We need to make sure that minorities, especially blacks, are safe from the very authorities who are supposed to protect them from violent injustices in the first place. Bringing officers like Chauvin to justice is a good thing, but making sure that no officer ever succumbs to their racial prejudice and again kills an innocent person out of racism is what our society should be aiming for.

Tuhin Chakraborty can be reached at [email protected].

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