Confronting Implicit Bias in the New York Police Department

Confronting Implicit Bias in the New York Police Department

An unarmed black man holding a cellphone, Stephon Clark, is fatally shot in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento and residents ask whether the officers only saw race when pulling their triggers 20 times.

Saheed Vassell, a mentally ill black man waving a pistol-shaped metal car part at pedestrians, is gunned down by police officers on a street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the outrage focuses on whether deep-seated prejudices fueled the quick use of deadly force.

Two black men are led in handcuffs from a Starbucks in Philadelphia and alarm bells go off: Had the officers unconsciously adopted the racial bias of the store employee who called the police?

While explicit bias remains part of the fabric of life in the United States, elected leaders and chiefs of police have increasingly focused on what is often called implicit bias, inherently unintentional yet more pervasive.

In policing, the consequences of such bias can be dire. If officers rely on stereotypes instead of facts, routine encounters can escalate or turn deadly.

Since the killings of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and numerous other deadly encounters between law enforcement officers and civilians, the police — from Seattle to New Orleans to Hutchinson, Kan. — have strained to acknowledge and address the biases that roil, sometimes unconsciously, their interactions with the public.

This year, the New York Police Department began a training program focused on implicit bias that is one of the pillars of the de Blasio administration’s ongoing police reform efforts. It will run through next year, and all members of the department will be trained as part of a $4.5 million contract with Fair and Impartial Policing, a Florida company that has emerged as a leading provider of such training.

It is one of the biggest contracts awarded to the for-profit training company, and no one can be certain of its effectiveness. There are no standards for its curriculum and no track record for assessing whether officers or departments successfully channel the training into their work.

The effort to train officers to tackle implicit bias is one Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed for since his 2016 State of the City address. Since the training began, the mayor has invoked it repeatedly in interviews and in appearances with the police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, as an important step in engendering trust.

But Patricia G. Devine, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin who runs a research laboratory on prejudice, said she was troubled by the spread of such training in the absence of probing, objective research. She said more study of officers’ unintentional biases is necessary to evaluate how training can impact their behaviors. Additional data is needed, she said, to determine if officers retain what they are taught and if civilians are benefiting from fairer policing.

“You could have the best of intentions and you could do something that you think intuitively makes sense, but it can and often does backfire; it makes things worse,” said Dr. Devine, who refers to the training as “bias habit training” and who is studying its effect on officers in Michigan.

Sergeants, lieutenants and other supervisors, as well as rank-and-file officers, have been attending implicit bias classes at the Police Academy in Queens. The New York Police Department would not permit a reporter for The New York Times to observe the training.

But in interviews, officers from across the country — including some who are now training the New York City officers — described the instruction in detail.

Brenda L. Leffler, who retired in November 2016 as a lieutenant colonel in the Colorado State Patrol and who has been teaching New York’s sergeants, spoke of a change in attitude among the officers. Many enter her classroom in a defensive, or hostile, posture, she said. They sit in silence, their arms crossed.

“You can see it on their faces,” Ms. Leffler, 49, said. “They are waiting for us to call them racists.”

But it fades, she said, as she explains “that implicit bias is a human issue, not a law-enforcement issue.”

She said many officers wind up leaving her classes wanting to know more about how stereotypes can seep into the subconscious mind — through textbooks, the media, parents, teachers or peers — beginning in childhood.

To help officers understand bias, and to ease them into the program, trainers begin by offering examples of bias that are less charged than the racial biases that are driving so much of the education effort.

Daniel W. Slaughter, a police chief in Clearwater, Fla., underwent implicit bias classes that he said made him rethink his dealings with adolescents. He came to recognize that as a younger officer he had often zeroed in on juveniles, giving them extra scrutiny, more tickets and less leniency. The training, he said, shattered “my vision of what my own ethical standard was” for fair policing.

Noble L. Wray, who is part of Fair and Impartial Policing’s New York City training team, tells his students about how as an officer in Madison, Wis., he would hear comments that betrayed bias toward black officers like himself. Commanders, he said, would try to counter calls for hiring or promoting more minorities with a warning that such efforts would “compromise quality.”

To that, his own implicit biases told him “that the problem was only white males in the organization,” who were discriminating against black officers. But over time Mr. Wray, who rose to become chief of the Madison Police Department and had a role implementing the recommendations of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said he came to see that thinking as flawed. Equally problematic, he said, was his own tendency to stereotype young, black men — even though they shared his skin color — “through the window of that 5 percent that were committing the crimes or creating the problems in my community.”

He said his own experience has taught him that race remains the most powerful bias.

“When we’re doing the training, I will personally say, ‘Yeah, there’s other biases.’ But the 800-pound gorilla in the room is racial bias,” Mr. Wray said.

In Colorado, Ms. Leffler led a regional department after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. She said she was wary of being infected by the biases of residents who would call to report suspicions about people with Muslim headwear “getting gas at a gas station or looking at Christmas trees at a shopping mall” when nothing unlawful was occurring.

“Profiling by proxy, as we call it,” Ms. Leffler said.

Though trainers initially take an expansive view of bias, they said the training would fail if it did not specifically confront bias against blacks. “The training, and the value of it, is distinctly about the racial relationship between the police and the African-American public,” Chief Slaughter said.

Lorie A. Fridell, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida who runs Fair and Impartial Policing, said the training is not meant to cure officers of biases, but to teach them to be aware of moments when an acquired bias surfaces, so that it can be managed.

“The key to this training is your behavior,” Dr. Fridell said. “We need to make sure your behavior is not biased.”

Dr. Fridell said she began thinking about the issue of biased policing while working as a research director at the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank, from 1999 to 2005, just as “racial profiling” and “driving while brown and driving while black,” seized the public consciousness. Her training concept got off the ground in 2009, supported by a federal grant to the University of South Florida from the Justice Department.

She launched the for-profit company in 2011. The program started as a way to train patrol officers and supervisors, but the curriculum has expanded to instruct an agency’s trainers who, in turn, can coach their own officers.

In New York, the implicit bias classes are limited to about 40 officers, with two trainers, according to the contract. Instructors often start classes by asking the officers if they have ever felt the sting of discrimination from civilians or fellow officers. Many admit they have, while off-duty or in plain clothes.

From there, the curriculum moves to a section on what implicit bias is, and how it manifests in policing: Why, for example, is a man dressed in a suit and driving a BMW believed at a crash scene more than one wearing dirty jeans and driving a dump truck? There are group discussions. Instructors show videos and encourage students to contemplate varied scenarios. In discussing the consequences of allowing bias to impact policing, a mantra is repeated: Those who fail to manage stereotypes will be less safe, less effective and less just.

Patrol officers are taught six ways to reduce and manage biases. As part of the curriculum, there is also a test that has officers ask themselves: “Would I be requesting consent to search, but for the fact that this person is black? That this is a teenager?” Dr. Fridell explained. “You picture the person with a different demographic, and would I still be asking this way?”

Another exercise encourages officers to recognize biased behavior in others — and to be on guard for profiling by proxy.

Dr. Fridell said the training is best applied to unhurried decisions where officers have time to think. Her trainers talk to police leaders about ways to erase bias from the split-second decisions officers make, too, and they advocate the use of video and role-playing in agencies’ use-of-force training. In both cases, slowing things down is a cardinal rule.

Many participants said that even in the absence of standards or metrics to measure the effectiveness of the training, it was an improvement on traditional racial-profiling and diversity classes of the past. Such classes presumed that for police officers to be biased, the prejudice had to be conscious and explicit.

That can undermine efforts to address bias because it can give officers a way out by denying they are overtly racist.“If police believe that biased policing is produced only by individuals with explicit bias, such as racists, and if they reject that they themselves are racist and see few or none around them, they may well decide that their agency and profession are being unfairly criticized about this problem,” Dr. Fridell wrote in her book, “Producing Bias-Free Policing: A Science Based Approach.”

This transformation, many said, takes time.

“It has to be sustained,” Mr. Wray said. “It has to be important to the leadership.”