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Implicit Bias in Policing: Part One

Police departments across the United States have exulted in lower crime rates and seemingly safer streets as performance indicators. However, a series of incidents involving police shootings of African-American males have sparked riots, marches, protesters blocking intersections, and a media extravaganza. Additionally, a sense of dissonance between local police and the communities they serve is at the front and center of discussions.

The terms “police legitimacy,” “procedural justice,” “fair and impartial policing,” and “rightful policing” describe the directions of proposed reforms in many police agencies. At the core of much of this are the influences of explicit and implicit bias in policing—and all of this bears mightily on law enforcement risk management.

Bias is anything that corrupts or interferes with an officer’s ability to perform his/her duties fairly and impartially. All people—even well-intentioned people—have biases. Explicit bias is conscious and sometimes reveals itself in very intentional actions. It has reared its ugly head in law enforcement even very recently as revealed, for example, by electronic messaging content in a number of agencies. This must be dealt with via tighter controls in hiring, training, supervision, discipline—and very focused feedback and intervention methods. Implicit bias is unintentional and unconscious, therefore much tougher to locate and deal with—but that is the focus of this three-part article.

Part One identifies and examines three of the challenges of implicit bias. Part Two will provide examples and studies of bias in decision-making and offer scientific and academic support for the substantive contentions in Parts One and Two. Part Three will make suggestions for how law enforcement organizations and their members can minimize and manage both institutional and individual bias.


Consider this Anecdote

Paul Thompson, now a police chief, remembered, “Early in my police career, while working as a patrol officer, I met with another officer on the side of the road. The conversation focused on a previous traffic stop, at which I was present. The officer said, ‘I couldn’t write her a citation because she reminded me of my grandmother.’

“The violator did not look like or remind me of my own grandmother. However, it was interesting that in the context of officer discretion, a decision was made based on a perceived linked-relational association. In the time it took for the officer to arrive at the violator’s window, a threat mitigation process occurred. How the officer I spoke with engaged the violator was based on his relationship or association with his grandmother, which was evidently positive.”

Ultimately, the violator was treated the way the officer would have treated his grandmother in a similar situation—with a high level of courtesy and respect. This example points out how an individual’s life experience is one component that informs his perception of threats or comforts.

Had this violator not reminded this officer of his grandmother, what would have been the effects of that? And, of course, this officer’s choice of behaviors also tends to confirm or challenge the violator’s explicit and implicit biases toward police. None of this necessarily makes anyone a bad person; it just needs to be understood.”


Challenge 1: No One is Immune

More than 85 percent of Americans consider themselves to be unprejudiced, but the inescapable truth is that we all have biases. Bias exists in every culture, industry, profession, occupation, and individual. Any number of factors can trigger bias, of course, but researchers have found that the majority of people in the United States hold some degree of implicit racial bias—particularly troubling and especially relevant to police risk management.

Implicit bias does not involve people intentionally hiding their racial prejudices. Most people want to be fair and non-discriminatory. Implicit bias means that people literally do not know, for example, that they have racial prejudices. Consequently, of course, they are unaware of the behavioral effects. Understanding the fact of implicit bias allows us to recognize our unconscious biases and take conscious actions to override our otherwise sometimes-biased responses.


Challenge 2: Mitigation

The 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. The recruitment, selection, training, supervision, and promotion of police officers must reflect our understanding that self-awareness is crucial for the mitigation of negative implicit bias influences.

Homogeneity is the key component in the perceptional lens of the attraction-selection-attrition theory. Specifically, an organization attracts like-minded individuals, who are hired by those who share similar values, and promotion is based on one’s alignment with the prevailing organizational culture. Beliefs, values, culture, and experiences have a powerful effect on a person’s perception of reality. The challenge is ensuring the implicit biases of police agencies, their officers, and communities do not hamper the development of trusting relationships.


Challenge 3: Discretion

While discretion is one of the greatest tools of a police officer, it can also be a self-destructive weapon. Discretion ultimately is the expression of choice in a decision. The exercise of discretion in many aspects of policing is the ordinary use of police authority. Discretionary decision-making cannot be accomplished without the explicit and implicit bias inherent in such expressions, especially in situations of fear, threats, and stress.

The challenge in discretional use of police authority is development of training regarding self and the exercise of cognitive control. Beyond that, organizational culture and behavior, together with their formative components, must be continually, objectively, and self-critically evaluated. This requires organizational self-awareness and cognitive control.


Implicit bias can be more harmful than explicit bias in some cases because we are unaware of its presence and influence on our judgements and actions. All law enforcement institutions and their members need to closely examine their biases—both explicit and implicit—and take steps to counter their effects. Anti-explicit bias initiatives have become a part of modern police culture, as illustrated in civil rights reforms, anti-racial profiling efforts, procedural justice initiatives, fair and impartial policing training, and better oversight in general.

Education, training, and maturity may assist in the modification of explicit biases with willing candidates. The challenge of implicit bias is a journey into understanding oneself and how one is perceived. In this regard, it is particularly important to develop awareness of the existence of blind spots in one’s responses to other people. Also, the development of a respectful internal police culture will express itself in better community relations.


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 Chiefs Association.  

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.


Published in Law and Order, Jul 2016

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