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A Post-Ferguson World

Can Police Training Put The Cuffs on Racial Bias?

by STEVE EARLY

”We are asking for more training for our officers,” said Lorian Reavely, 39 of Pasco, a protestor who stood in front of a sign reading: “Stop Police Brutality’…”

                                    –The New York Times, Feb. 22, 2015

Everybody from police brutality critics to the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the commissioner of police in New York City now agree that “unconscious bias” can adversely affect police interaction with the public.

In a widely reported speech at Georgetown University last month, FBI chief James Comey noted that police officers “often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color.” In such a setting, “no one’s really color blind,” he contended.  “Maybe it’s a fact we all should face: everyone makes judgments based on race.” Whether an individual officer is white or black, he or she views young whites and blacks differently because the latter “look like so many others the officer has locked up.” 

Echoing Comey two weeks later, New York City’s top cop, William J. Bratton, told a Black History Month audience that urban law enforcement experience “carries a risk of turning into bias.” Police departments “need to fight against that,” he said. Otherwise, in minority neighborhoods with high crime rates, police officers will continue to “have a problem with citizen satisfaction”—as demonstrated by continuing public outrage over “officer-involved” killings of unarmed blacks or Latinos in Ferguson, MO., Cleveland, Ohio, New York City, Pasco, WA., and now Los Angeles.

Would-be police reformers face two challenges arising from these tragedies. One is preventing or punishing police misconduct that involves brazen acts of brutality or explicit racism of the sort documented in the just-released Department of Justice (DOJ) report on policing in Ferguson.

The second and more difficult task is helping law enforcement personnel recognize unconscious biases related to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status that may adversely affect their day-to-day job performance. To do the latter, some police departments are now embracing a new training curriculum that tries to promote “fair and impartial policing” (FIP).

Re-training To The Rescue?

One of the leading proponents of FIP is Lorie Fridell, a criminologist from the University of South Florida, whose public safety consulting business began booming, post-Ferguson.  Since 2010, Fridell has conducted seminars on unconscious bias for law enforcement officers from 250 local, state, or federal agencies. The DOJ’s Office on Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) has invested more than $1 million in FIP training, and additional funds have come from local police departments, particularly those facing costly civil rights litigation or federal pressure to clean up their act.

Fridell came to northern California last week to train patrol officers and command staff in the Richmond Police Department (RPD),...

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