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Can Anti-Bias Courses Reduce Racial Disparities In Policing?

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Seattle Police officers on patrol in downtown Seattle, July 8, 2016.

We aren’t aware of our subconscious prejudices and how they affect our actions. Researchers say this implicit bias plays a role in policing, helping to explain why people of color often receive harsher treatment from police than whites. Some police departments are trying to address the problem through training courses. Seattle journalist Tom James set out to find out how effective the courses are. He wrote about it for The Atlantic. James tells KNKX law and justice reporter Paula Wissel that, for a variety of reasons, it’s difficult to know if anti-bias courses are working. For one thing, there are no standardized measurements.

Interview Highlights:

Bias is persistent: “You might be a very progressive person. You might donate money to the ACLU, even the NAACP and maybe you even have a person of color who’s an adopted member of your family. You can still sit down and take the 'shoot, don’t shoot' test and you’ll end up shooting the black person more often by mistake. And that can make training to reduce or interrupt biases hard.”

Stress can also affect your reaction: "In a situation where someone has a lot of time to think about things, they’ll follow reason and logic. But, as one researcher put it, when somebody jumps out of the bushes and reaches for his waistband, that’s not how the brain is working at that point.”

Still, police who go through anti-bias training say it changes their thinking: "One thing that a lot of officers I talked with expressed was that they come into law enforcement wanting to make the world better...And, I could not believe talking to them that it had not done something positive for them. And this is me being hypothetical. I don’t have a lot of empirical support for it , but when I listened to them and to their voices, I had a hard time believing that this wouldn’t change how they thought about their work."

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.
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