Implicit Bias: A Law Enforcement Perspective

By Joan Fucillo

February 25, 2019

Implicit Bias: A Law Enforcement Perspective


By Joan Fucillo

Police officers risk their lives just by coming to work. Their duties expose them to the worst aspects of humanity and demand that they take nothing at face value. They are required to make split-second decisions in dangerous situations and trust that their training and instinct lets them see what’s real. The public does not have a good understanding of the full extent of what police officers do and are not well positioned to know what training officers need or would benefit from. This is why it is so hard to develop effective implicit bias training for police officers.

A talk entitled “Implicit Bias: A Law Enforcement Perspective” was presented on January 16 at the Criminal Justice Section meeting during the New York State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting. The speakers, Janine Gilbert and Sergeant Heather Perkins, addressed what implicit bias training should consist of for law enforcement and the challenges in designing it, based on their experience.

After opening with a disclaimer that their presentation did not represent official New York City Police Department (NYPD) training or policy, and that they were not discussing the NYPD’s current training in this arena, Gilbert, assistant deputy commissioner of equity and inclusion, and chief EEO officer and ADA coordinator at the NYPD, explained that  implicit bias training for NYPD officers, while not ordered, has its roots in the findings of then-U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin in Floyd v. City of New York. Judge Scheindlin found that in practice the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy was in violation of the 4th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution because it disproportionately impacted black and Latino citizens.

Gilbert noted that “over the last few years, reports of bias incidents have been on the rise,” which has demonstrated the need around understanding bias and implicit bias training for everyone.

A former prosecutor, Gilbert said that there is often resistance from officers to training that doesn’t originate with law enforcement “The solution? Have cops train cops.  Training must be law enforcement driven, with buy-in from the top.”

She then introduced Sgt. Perkins, a 19-year NYPD veteran, who has served as a senior instructor and curriculum developer at the Police Academy and who recently joined the NYPD’s Office of Equity and Inclusion.

Perkins and Gilbert agreed that “implicit bias does exist generally, and it affects behavior. Though research shows that explicit prejudice has declined over time, there has not been a complementary decline in discriminatory results. Implicit bias may explain this difference.”

Understanding police culture is important. Gilbert and Perkins both said that people who join “have good intentions – they join ‘to serve and protect.'” But police views are born of experience, exposure, and the need to trust their fellow officers with their lives.

Police are skeptical of implicit bias training, they added, “because it feels like they are being accused of racism or being called racists.” Additionally, officers feel that their police training and patrol experience keeps them safe and enables them to do their jobs effectively, and anything that would have them question their reactions or second guess themselves might put them at risk.

Perkins addressed these concerns and explained how effective implicit bias training could be developed. She emphasized that “everyone has implicit biases” – it is a universal human condition. Training should be “participatory and start with the safety risks of not dealing with implicit biases.” The goal, she added, is “keeping everyone safe,” and keeping police officers safe, “both on the streets and legally.”

“The training is about learning, getting skills you can use,” she said.

Gilbert then listed some important factors for training:

  • Clear goals.
  • Small class size.
  • Police officers lead training – they understand and can handle pushback and anger.
  • Emphasize that training is not about condemning their character (i.e., calling them racist).
  • Show how training will help keep officers safer. Clearly address the risks they face – and the fear about ‘what happens if I hesitate?’
  • Community involvement:  Strengthen the “we are them” mentality.

Perkins pointed out that with only 37,000 police officers in a city of 8.5 million people, “officers need to have legitimacy as officers and authority figures in communities they serve.” Better community relationships help keep officers safe. Implicit bias training can help officers “avoid pitfalls or traps that they may not see otherwise because they are unaware,” and avoid missing a legitimate threat or seeing a nonexistent one.

One of the biggest challenges, said Gilbert, “is that this is all part of a larger culture change which takes time. It takes time, faith, repetition and buy-in – especially from the leadership – to be adopted and passed down to subsequent generations. The larger the population and the deeper entrenched opposing ideas are, the longer and more difficult the change process becomes.”

Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark, who attended the program, reiterated the importance of having “police know the community, and for the community to know the police.” She noted that this approach is sometimes called ‘soft on crime’ because fewer people end up in jail. “But that is not the goal,” she added. “The goal is safe communities and safety for the officers who protect and serve them.”

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