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Implicit Bias in Policing: Part Two

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 has 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.

Part One of this series identified certain challenges associated with bias in police work. In Part Two, we make the case that everyone has biases. Denying it gets a little silly and impedes progress toward minimization of associated problems. Self-awareness—individual and organizational—is the gateway to improvement. Part Three will discuss ways to improve upon the current situation.

Human beings constantly judge people, things, and concepts in a few seconds or less and very often without conscious effort or even awareness. The process is automatic, natural, and a powerful influence on how we respond. Whether called implicit bias, the Pygmalion Effect, emotional response, simple stereotyping, and/or confirmation bias, it is important and can be dangerous.

A staggering amount of research is now showing that behavior is often affected by factors of which the person involved is unaware and in many cases would honestly (though wrongly) deny. Nonetheless, those factors color perceptions, influence decision-making, and change behavior. Perceptions give rise to explicit (conscious) and, more subtly, implicit (unconscious) bias through stereotyping and similar dynamics. Following are summaries of a few of the many studies that demonstrate this effect.


Examples of Unconscious Bias

Implicit bias affects how doctors diagnose and treat patients. A study, conducted by the Disparities Solutions Center, affiliated with Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, was the first to show that unconscious racial bias leads to inferior care for African-American patients.

The doctors in the study were told that two men, one white and one African-American, were each 50 years old and complained of chest pain. Each showed other symptoms of a heart attack.  The result was shocking: Most of the doctors were more likely to prescribe a potentially life-saving, clot-busting treatment for the white patients than for the African-American patient.

A follow-on implicit association test was also given, designed to reveal a person’s unconscious views of African-Americans and whites. “If you scored high on the bias against Afro-Americans portion of the test, then you were actually less likely to provide clot-busting treatment for a heart attack for black patients.” Interestingly, African-American doctors also showed bias against African-American patients, though less than white doctors.


Self-Fulfilling Expectations

The Pygmalion Effect, named for a character in Greek mythology, refers to the power of expectation and is extremely common in human dynamics. It can be used in powerfully positive ways in supervision and elsewhere and in other cases can be dramatically negative. Following are some of its potential negatives and how they might bear on law-enforcement risk management. 

In an experiment conducted by Harvard researchers, teachers were given a list of their students with IQ scores and ratings of how well they could expect them to do during the upcoming year. In reality, the students were randomly assigned to two groups, one characterized as a high IQ/high expectation group, the other a low IQ/ low expectation group.

Despite the random assignment to groups (which should have resulted in the same number of high and low performing students being in each group and equal performance between the groups), the students and groups performed much as they were labeled. The teachers’ expectations unconsciously affected how they taught and evaluated the two groups and how the students responded.

An earlier study sought to learn the extent to which our perceptions of the behavior of others are based on the actual behaviors seen or are instead influenced by the context of the behavior. In this study, eight ‘healthy’ (not mentally ill) individuals got themselves admitted to psychiatric hospitals and subsequently tried to convince staff they (the new ‘patients’) were ready to be released. 

Though the subjects faked ‘hearing voices’ to get admitted, all other information they provided about themselves and their history was true. The plan was that, if they got admitted, they would immediately resume normal behaviors, including ending any reports of hearing voices, and try to be discharged as soon as possible.

Somewhat to the surprise of both the researchers and fake patients, all eight ‘normal’ people were admitted with a psychiatric diagnosis. Once admitted and labeled as having psychiatric problems, engaging in normal behavior was interpreted by staff as abnormal. 

For example, if the fake patient was pacing due to boredom, the pacing was interpreted and noted in the hospital chart as a symptom of anxiety. Showing up early for lunch (because of boredom and meals being a highlight of the day) was interpreted as evidence of ‘oral acquisitive needs.’ The context of the behavior, i.e. being labeled mentally ill, changed the staff’s view of the meaning of behavior and how staff responded to it.


Shoot, Don’t Shoot Studies

College participants played a computer game that required them to decide when and when not to shoot particular characters. More specifically, the participants needed to shoot dangerous armed characters as quickly as possible (by pressing a ‘shoot’ button), but not shoot unarmed characters (by pressing a ‘don’t shoot’ button). Some of the characters held a gun, like a pistol, and some of the characters held innocuous objects, like a wallet or cell phone. Half of the characters were Caucasian and half were African-American.

The researchers found that participants chose more quickly to shoot armed African-American characters than armed Caucasian characters. Participants also chose more quickly not to shoot unarmed Caucasian characters than unarmed African-American characters. Participants showed more ‘false alarm’ errors by shooting unarmed African-American characters more frequently than unarmed Caucasian characters and electing not to shoot armed Caucasian characters more than armed African-American characters.

There is good news. Further similar research into response by actual police officers found only slight, statistically insignificant, differences in whether and when officers pulled the trigger on unarmed black and white “suspects” —suggesting that training and other positive experience may reduce implicitly biased responses.

Sweeping research shows that everyone has biases that influence how they view and treat others. Acknowledgement of this is important; denial obstructs remediation. We should just say ‘yes’ to the existence of implicit bias and get on with its minimization. The final part of this series will expand on this thought and suggest ways to minimize both explicit and implicit bias problems in law enforcement.


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 Chiefs Association. 

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2016

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