Strengthening Relationships by Managing Biases
By Marvin Whitfield, Ph.D.
Law enforcement officers understand the importance of building strong relationships with the communities they serve, especially those of color. To this end, during the past several decades, various training programs, such as the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) initiative, have been developed to help officers strengthen these bonds.
However, history has taught us that while some community relations and diversity training programs have arisen since the Rodney King incident and subsequent riots in 1991, they realistically have achieved only minimal success. As a result, we have learned that both law enforcement officers and community members must understand the importance of developing and maintaining ongoing, positive interactions that help reduce racial tension.
As a person of color, former law enforcement professional, and researcher, I have explored racial issues between communities and police agencies from almost every angle. I believe that members of both groups generally want the same outcomes: safety; freedom from stereotypes; and, perhaps most important, respect. The challenge is to find productive methods that advance discussions about racial tension and promote open, honest, and respectful dialogue between communities of color and law enforcement officers.
Dr. Whitfield, a former police commander, is a consultant in the areas of leadership development and implicit bias management.
Implicit Bias Training
To engage in productive dialogue, we need to understand how biases operate. When most of us hear the word bias, we naturally feel its negative connotations. In this age of political correctness, we have learned that biases are bad and that implicit biases are even worse.
It can be extremely difficult to change our biases. However, we can learn to become aware of them and, perhaps more important, how they influence our decisions. If law enforcement officers and communities of color hope to engage in effective dialogue, they first must become aware of their implicit biases and then manage and balance them in beneficial, not harmful, ways.
Implicit bias training is a new approach aimed at helping individuals recognize subjective viewpoints and understand their influence on decision-making processes. Workforce industry experts and scholars describe such training as valuable, and according to studies, companies that promote diversity outperform those that do not by as much as 35 percent.1 In its simplest form, implicit bias training provides a collection of tools designed to improve cultural competency by increasing awareness, knowledge, and skills.
This training helps augment our awareness of such biases by applying a definition of the concept. Simply put, implicit bias refers to the fact that people have preferences and aversions—sometimes beneficial but other times potentially harmful—they may not have a conscious awareness of. Put another way, we can hold positive or negative viewpoints toward an object, person, or concept.
For example, research has shown that individuals who stand at least 6 feet tall earn on average approximately $166,000 more during a 30-year career compared with individuals 5 ½ feet tall.2 This simple illustration shows us that even without our awareness, we have biases—that is, we generally favor individuals slightly above average height.
Such training also works to increase our knowledge about cultures and subcultures different from our own. These differences may include their history, worldviews, values, and practices. Studies have shown that a limited understanding of people from other cultures can increase the likelihood that we will develop stereotypes or biases.3
This limited knowledge also reduces empathy and positive emotions toward these individuals. However, training that combines current and accurate statistical data with real-world examples of stereotypes can help us understand and manage the effects that implicit biases may have on our decisions and behavior.
Further, implicit bias training enhances skills that enable us to recognize and more freely discuss cultural issues and differences. It helps us become familiar with and even apply positive value to different cultures and practices. The training increases our mindfulness and broadens our perspectives during interactions with people different from us.
“If law enforcement officers and communities of color hope to engage in effective dialogue, they first must become aware of their implicit biases and then manage and balance them in beneficial, not harmful, ways.”
Such training can foster greater understanding of cultural differences in ways that bring a sense of self-awareness and familiarity. More specifically, it is designed to help individuals recognize subjective, automatic patterns of thinking that could be discriminatory and unduly influence decision-making processes.
This form of training can help law enforcement officials and community members manage their biases and base their decisions on situational circumstances, rather than exclusively on subjective viewpoints. Ultimately, implicit bias training emphasizes techniques that counter negative stereotypes and encourages a more accurate understanding of other races and cultures. As a result, participants both broaden and deepen their cultural understanding. Perhaps more important, individuals develop empathy for others.
Acknowledging the presence of implicit biases and the influence they may exert on our decision-making processes is one of the first steps we can take toward managing them. After that, we should consider promoting implicit bias training within communities of color as well as within the ranks of law enforcement.
Before implementing implicit bias training, facilitators must evaluate the existing relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities of color they serve. If it is marked by tension and general mistrust, facilitators should begin by training officers and community members separately.
This format allows time and psychological space to understand and explore implicit bias in a safe, more controlled environment. It not only enhances understanding and communication but also helps remove the negative stigma associated with bias and reduces defense mechanisms that often accompany this type of training.
As a result, during joint training both groups will be more prepared to calmly discuss potentially diverging perspectives through the open, honest, and compassionate expression of thoughts and feelings.
Police leaders need to understand that effective implicit bias training should be ongoing and long-term. It should include standardizing organizational policies, protocols, and procedures.
One-day training cannot eradicate learned stereotypes and biases that have developed over a lifetime. Rather, we should be more forward-thinking for the good of both law enforcement officers and the communities of color they serve.
“This form of training can help law enforcement officials and community members manage their biases and base their decisions on situational circumstances, rather than exclusively on subjective viewpoints.”
Dr. Whitfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince, Diversity Matters (New York, NY: McKinsey & Company, 2015), accessed May 13, 2020, https://assets.mckinsey.com/~/media/857F440109AA4D13A54D9C496D86ED58.ashx.
2 Melissa Dittman, “Standing Tall Pays Off, Study Finds,” Monitor on Psychology 35, no. 7 (July/August 2004): 14, accessed May 13, 2020, https://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug04/standing.
3 Cheryl Staats et al., State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review (Columbus, OH: Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2017): 19, 20, 71, accessed May 13, 2020, http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/implicit-bias-training/resources/2017-implicit-bias-review.pdf.