Suburban police take on challenge of implicit bias

St. Charles police officer John Losurdo admits he didn't have the best attitude going into what he expected to be more training about diversity.

"I was not at all looking forward to it. I thought it was going to be kind of like a political response to what's happening now, where people say all officers are racist," Losurdo said.

But the training from Fair & Impartial Policing exceeded his expectations - and not because it opens with a video of Scottish singer Susan Boyle performing on the TV program "Britain's Got Talent."

The training, provided by a Florida-based company, focuses on "implicit bias" and how it can interfere with effective policing. The goal is to make officers aware of such bias - which everyone has in some form - and ensure it doesn't dictate their actions.

"It's not accusatory at all," Losurdo said. "It gave me more self-awareness, and opened my eyes to these implicit biases everybody has. If you understand them and you don't let them dictate what you do, that's how you benefit."

Suburban officers - including those in Elgin, Gurnee, St. Charles and Naperville - who've taken the training the last few months said they found it useful and enlightening. Those officers typically train the rest of their police force.

An explicit bias is a conscious, verbalized animus toward a certain group of people, while implicit biases unconsciously influence their holders' thoughts and behavior, even people who aren't aware of having any prejudices. Implicit biases can be about race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and appearance, and they can lead to erroneous assumptions.

A few examples from the training:

How would you react if you saw black men struggling to open the door in an upscale white neighborhood? What if the men were white?

What about a well-dressed woman versus a teenager wearing low-slung jeans who's hopping a fence?

And let's not forget Susan Boyle, whose melodious voice stunned the TV judges who initially dismissed her because of her appearance.

Implicit biases might or might not correspond to correct assessments - the fence-hopping teenager might in fact be up to no good - but it's imperative to be aware of potential bias so that interactions with the public are not tainted by preconceived notions, Elgin police Deputy Chief Bill Wolf said. That, in turn, leads to fewer complaints, he said.

It's also safer for officers to never make assumptions about the people they encounter, he said.

"Never totally lock onto a theory that you can't change as soon as the facts change," he told a group of officers he trained earlier this month.

The training details research on bias, such as a 2002 study that showed police are more likely to run arrest warrant checks on black people and a 2005 study about the correlation between suspects' race and police shootings.

Officers should remember people who call 911 to report, say, a suspicious person in a car might do so based on their own implicit biases, Wolf said.

Another video in the training shows young kids who are asked whether black or white dolls are better, with the latter consistently getting higher marks. That was particularly sobering, said Gurnee police Sgt. Bill Stashkiw.

"You ask yourself how in the world might have they developed that sense, because they don't have a sense of the world yet, really," he said. "It might have come from television and even their own families."

The training emphasizes "contact theory," which says the more officers are exposed to different people, the more they reduce their implicit biases. One way to achieve that is by offering citizens police academies and collaborating with neighborhood watch groups, Stashkiw said.

The training also shows residents can have their own bias against police. Officers shouldn't take that personally or react to it, Elgin Detective Jamie Marabillas said.

"Just because I might have been fair to the people I deal with, the people on the receiving end may not have had those same good experiences with policing," she said.

In Naperville, police invited representatives from Muslim and black communities to participate in the training, Cmdr. Michaus Williams said.

"I view that as a very good step as far as having better dialogue and communication with the community, and having better perceptions of how we operate," Williams said.

Fair & Impartial Policing has trained hundreds of departments since it started in 2008, and interest in it increased after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, spokeswoman Lorie Fridell said.

The 2½-day course for up to 30 people is $17,000, plus travel costs for two trainers, she said. Other companies provide similar training, although Fair & Impartial Policing, whose clients include the Baltimore, Milwaukee and Detroit police departments, is considered the largest.

Such training is effective at making officers aware of their implicit biases, but there is no research that shows it alone spurs long-lasting change, said Destiny Peery, faculty associate at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research.

That can be achieved only with a multipronged approach that, for police departments, includes training such as mental health crisis intervention and internal processes to evaluate and address any officer bias, she said.

Wolf agreed, pointing to the importance of having diverse shooting simulation scenarios and monitoring whether officers may be acting on bias by evaluating residents' complaints and data about things like race and traffic stops.

Fridell also said her company is working with entities such as the nonprofit Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., to try to develop a controlled evaluation of the training.

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