Implicit Bias in Policing: Part Three

Biases are outcomes of social construction. How we see the world, consciously and subconsciously, was learned. Ultimately, what is learned can be unlearned or, at least, its influences can be redirected or reduced. Bias minimization efforts appropriately begin with acknowledgment that no one is immune, that mitigation requires both organizational and individual efforts, and that the more discretion human beings are allowed in the use of their powers, the greater the risk that biases will play out in their decisions and behaviors.

Some research suggests that training can reduce the negative impact of biases. Effort should be made in this regard, even if more strongly grounded in hopefulness than scientific research. But minimizing bias or, at least its effects, will require more than just a few days of training. And controlling community perceptions of bias must involve much broader efforts than just anti-bias training. Specifically, it must include systemic efforts to improve the quality of officer-citizen contacts.

When people feel they are being treated well by law enforcement, they are less likely to perceive bias, whether or not it is present. This is not to suggest, of course, that politeness and other civility is the antidote for bias. Rather, the thought is that rudeness and other incivility will increase perceptions of bias. The same point can be made in respect to cultural competence – understanding of and respect for differences in cultural and subcultural behaviors, religions, beliefs, language and values will decrease the likelihood of perceptions of bias.

Whatever efforts are made toward reducing perceptions of bias, long-term efforts to reduce actual bias, explicit and implicit, should begin with a close look at the front door of police agencies—the hiring process. Other selection processes, including promotion, should be similarly re-examined. Beyond that lies policy re-tooling, more and different training, and other interventions.  


Selection Processes

Homogeneity is the center of the attraction-selection-attrition theory. Organizations tend to attract and select like-minded individuals and promotion is based significantly on one’s alignment with prevailing organizational culture. The more we are the same, the less appreciation and respect we may have for differences, thereby handicapping ourselves organizationally and individually. These truths alone require re-examination of selection processes.

Targeting recruiting and (within the bounds of affirmative action law) preferential selection of minority candidates is likely to reduce the extent and depth of certain biases. Research indicates that some minority group members are biased against their own minority group but, to the extent that such biases are present at all, they are likely to be fewer and weaker—a good thing in net effect.

Obviously, hiring minority candidates should have other positive benefits, including helping with community trust and diversification of organizational thought. Critical professional standards should not be eliminated simply to increase diversity but periodic re-examination of what is and is not critical and/or important is appropriate.

For reasons that historically had little if anything to do with bias minimization, some police agencies utilize educational requirements as a selection or de-selection factor. Though it must be used carefully because of potential for illegal disparate/adverse impact on some minority groups, preference for candidates with four-year and other higher educations—at least of certain types—may be helpful to the extent that it suggests exposure to and respect for a variety of cultural, socio-political, and philosophical views.

Candidates with more life and job experience have a more extensive track record that focused background investigation could mine for desirable or undesirable attitudes, characteristics, and behaviors. In this same regard, candidates’ personal social media communication may be a powerful tool for background investigators to gain an often candid glimpse into a candidate’s perceptions and views—and biases. Naturally, there are a variety of other reasons to prefer police candidates with more life experience and maturity.

Targeting recruiting and more refined screening tools (including specific testing for human relations and interpersonal communications skills) should favor more mature candidates and, for reasons both similar and different, female candidates. Women tend to be relatively empathetic, therefore better listeners, and better communicators more generally. Hiring more females as police officers would be likely to reduce perceptions of bias because of the relatively positive ways in which women typically communicate.

Futuristic efforts at reducing bias would begin by hiring people with fewer, weaker, and more controlled biases. There are already credible tests that measure bias. To the extent that a valid test can be found to measure the type and extent of a candidate’s biases, it would make sense to use it in hiring processes, as we already use other tests of personality and attitudes, positive and negative. Somewhere on a spectrum of racial bias would be a cut-off point at which extremely high levels of certain kinds of bias would mark a presumptive racist. Certainly, we would want to avoid that hiring.



Policy development intended to minimize bias in policing should begin with a close look at how heavily an agency relies on quantitative (numeric data) as opposed to qualitative measures in planning and measuring its crime fighting strategies. Reduction of crime is a valid goal and one measure of effectiveness but, at this particular time, might not be the most important. Using quantity-first tools to reduce crime in some areas often meets with a clear disconnect between police and the communities and neighborhoods at which such measures are aimed.

Discretion is a highly valued tool of policing, but it has a steep downside. The more discretion is allowed, the less consistency there will be in police practices and the more room there is for bias and perceptions of bias to play out. So, the absence of specific policy controls on officer and supervisory decision-making creates greater risk of bias-based behavioral outcroppings and wider-spread perceptions of bias.


In some areas, certain historical discretions should be sacrificed at the altar of consistency, fairness, trust and legitimacy. Detailed and strictly enforced policy should control behavior and outcomes in such matters by ensuring reliance on non-discriminatory factors at key decision points—particularly those involving how the weight of police authority is utilized.  



There is a great need for police training that focuses very intensively on thoughts and attitudes. Mitigation of implicit bias requires both external and internal discernment and both organizational and individual efforts at self-awareness and intervention. The understanding and development of “self” contributes to a greater awareness of biases; however, blind spots exist on an unconscious level for everyone. These blind spots are where implicit bias resides. Feedback can help one identify, reduce, and mitigate implicit bias.

Training that involves peer feedback must be conducted in a direct but respectful manner. Video observations of a person with and without audio can provide greater awareness of how one is perceived. Awareness of how an individual’s life experiences influence one’s perception is a foundational step. The outcome of training is not to convert anyone to another’s world view but to raise consciousness to a level of mutual understanding and respect.

Good human relations and interpersonal communication skills play important roles in reducing perceptions of bias. For that reason and its criticality to both officer effectiveness and officer safety, human relations and communication training should be the center of both basic and in-service law enforcement training. And officers should be required to ‘qualify’ in this performance domain as they are required periodically to qualify with their firearms. Failure to ‘qualify’ would lead to remediation processes.


Intervention/Early Identification

Complaint intake and handling must be absolutely free of bias effects. Checks and double checks are necessary to absolutely ensure the legitimacy of self-policing processes, particularly in the area of constitutional policing but also in more mundane matters like alleged rudeness.

Especially given the more likely presence of recording devices, the profession can and should launch a major initiative toward improving the quality of officer-community member contacts.

Early warning systems should include data analysis as regards inconsistent and/or unconstitutional applications of police power. Strict supervisory review of criminal investigative procedure should be constant and ongoing, as aided by police reports.

Early warning on poor interpersonal communication and human relations work as well as constitutional policing can be found in a variety of statistical data other than complaints. For suggestions in this regard, see earlier writings in this column by authors Means and Jokerst on the subject of early warning systems.

And, of course, if an organization and its leaders had the stomach for it, use of a bias test could be considered as part of early identification program. This would be viewed as a very extreme measure, but it is in the nature of random drug testing, which is a suspicion-less integrity test certainly not unheard of in police employment. The devil would be in the details, as is usually the case.

Crime fighting is important, but it should be accomplished in ways that do not cause serious damage to the fabric of the multi-cultural, patchwork-quilt society that America is and has always been. Education, exposure, and very focused training provide opportunities to think differently about many things, including people. There must be organizational and individual effort to consciously challenge or ‘unlearn’ stereotypes. Biases toward a group can be minimized by increasing positive contacts with that group.

The common mental health advice to police officers to have friends who aren’t police officers goes double here. By spending time with and learning more about people from different groups, one begins to see and understand their individuality and rely less on ‘filling in the blanks’ with stereotypes. And the media framing that supports black males as anti-police and police officers as against black males must be directly and emphatically challenged.

Attorney Randy Means served for nearly 20 years as the primary legal and risk management instructor for the IACP and has served as head of its Legal Officers Section. His book The Law of Policing – Federal Constitutional Principles is in its second edition.

Chief Paul Thompson holds both a doctorate degree and a master’s degree in management. He has been a police officer for 25 years, and a chief with three agencies. He is a vice-president and executive board member of the Texas Police Association.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2016

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