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Addressing Biased Policing Through Science-Based Training

Policemen arresting a wanted criminal outdoors

This is part of our ongoing series of blog posts about race, racism and law enforcement in communities of color.

Do you claim to be color-blind?  Do you believe that you do not notice when a person is Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, or Asian?  Well then, you need to wake up to the modern science of bias!  Not only are we not color-blind, but research shows a strong inverse relationship between thinking you are unbiased and being unbiased. That is, the more you believe in your own neutrality, the more likely it is that you are biased.

We collectively need to pull our heads out of the sand and recognize that, even if many of us don’t have explicit biases (that is, overt, conscious biases like those of a racist) we ALL have implicit biases.  These implicit biases impact our perceptions and can impact our behavior—leading us to discriminate.  Implicit biases can impact individuals outside of conscious awareness, and here’s the really bad news: this occurs even in those of us who reject, at a conscious level, bias, prejudice and stereotyping.

Implicit bias and policing

The research on implicit bias indicates that even well-intentioned law enforcement officers (and, notwithstanding media coverage this past year that reinforces stereotypes to the contrary, there are many such cops out there) can engage in biased policing.  Their biases might lead to over-vigilance of some groups (e.g., Hispanics, Blacks, low-income individuals) and under-vigilance with others (e.g., women, the well-dressed).  Implicit bias might lead police to interpret “furtive movements” in a Black male differently from the same behavior in a Caucasian male. Or, in a situation involving a 2-car crash and different stories, implicit bias might lead the cop to believe the story of the woman in a suit and BMW over the woman in a worn t-shirt and jeans driving a beat-up car.

Addressing police biases through training

Because police have a great deal of power over us and enforce our laws, they represent a group for whom raising consciousness about bias is particularly important.   Many police departments across the country and Canada are now training their personnel on the science of implicit bias—helping police to understand the stereotypes that we link to groups and how those “implicit associations” can impact on perceptions and behavior. Importantly, they also learn skills to facilitate bias-free policing. The science indicates that the first step in producing bias-free behavior is to understand our own implicit biases, so that we can recognize them when they manifest. Once we acknowledge and start to recognize our implicit biases, we can reduce and manage them.

But aren’t some “stereotypes” about criminals true?

When trainers face a group of cops to talk about implicit biases and the application to policing, they need to acknowledge that many stereotypes are based in part on fact.   Otherwise, the police will dismiss all that they say.  Stereotypes that men, low-income individuals, and people of color are disproportionately involved in street crime relative to their representations in the population are supported by criminological research.[1]   But that reality does not change the directive:  Police cannot treat individuals as if they fit the group stereotype; such policing is ineffective, unsafe and unjust.

Will this “cure” abusive policing?

Raising consciousness about bias isn’t the whole answer to biased policing and to the concerns about police behavior and police accountability that were highlighted this past year.  Science-based training is most effective with the well-intentioned cops who want to serve their communities, and likely not effective with abusive cops.  Make no mistake about it, abusive policing is biased policing;  police who use excessive force, otherwise violate individual rights, and/or treat people with disrespect and even disdain, do not act this way when dealing with people they perceive to be powerful.  Instead, abusive police officers prey upon the less powerful (or those they perceive as such), such as young, low-income, and/or racial/ethnic minority individuals.  These cops will not be changed by a bias-consciousness seminar.

From hostility to changed views

But for the majority of cops, who are well-intentioned, training on implicit bias can be transforming.  Most enter classrooms on “Fair and Impartial Policing” somewhere between defensive and hostile.  This is because we have treated cops in recent years as if they all have explicit biases–treated them as if they all are intentionally and deliberately producing discriminatory behavior.

Many cops enter the training room believing that the problem of biased policing

  1. is way overblown (particularly by the press),

  2. is produced by only a few cops (most or all of whom work for other agencies), and

  3. does not involve them.

They leave understanding that we all have implicit biases and that they will have to be proactive to produce bias-free policing.  They understand that biased policing is not just unjust, it is also ineffective and unsafe. As one sergeant recently wrote on his course evaluation:  “I came in Monday as opposed and defensive as I could covertly be without getting into trouble.  … It took about two hours and I was sold on the theory of the class and wondering why I had not been through this training sooner.”

It’s been a tough year for the police profession.  As controversy continues to swirl—rejuvenated by each incident of questionable use of force against a racial/ethnic minority individual–credit needs to go to the police leaders who are sincerely looking for ways to improve their departments’ policing and restore the trust of the community.  Consistent with one of the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on Twenty First Century Policing, many of these leaders are bringing ience-based bias training to their personnel. Such efforts should be applauded and supported.


Dr. Lorie Fridell is an Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa.  Prior to joining USF in August of 2005, she served for six years as the Director of Research at the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Fridell has over 25 years of experience conducting research on law enforcement. Her current primary research areas are police use of force, violence against police, police deviance and body-worn cameras.  Dr. Fridell is a national expert on biased policing.  She speaks nationally on this topic and provides consultation and training to law enforcement agencies.   Publications on this topic include two books:  Racially Biased Policing: A Principled Response and By the Numbers: A Guide for Analyzing Race Data from Vehicle Stop (and the companion guide, Understanding Race Data from Vehicle Stops:  A Stakeholder’s Guide.)  A book chapter is entitled “Racially Biased Policing: The Law Enforcement Response to the Implicit Black-Crime Association.”  Dr. Fridell developed the science-based “Fair and Impartial Policing perspective.”  With national experts on the psychology of bias and funding from the US Department of Justice, she has developed five Fair and Impartial Policing training programs for police personnel (see

[1] Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, shame and reintegration. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Pratt, T.C., & Cullen, F.T. (2005). Macro-level predictors and theories of crime: A meta-analysis. Crime and Justice, 32, 373-450.

Image source: iStockPhoto

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