The importance of implicit bias training in law enforcement agencies cannot be understated. Implicit bias is an automatic association. These unconscious thoughts are not unique to police officers—all humans experience these natural mental associations without even realizing it. Don’t believe me? Take a test to see where you fall on the scale. Training in implicit bias can provide awareness to alter behavior based on how one believes their action will be perceived. A study by Washington State University in 2016 stated that, “by virtue of their training or expertise, [police] officers may exert control over their behavior, possibly overriding the influence of racial stereotypes.” The tactical training officers receive allows them to recognize and appropriately address their potential biases more effectively. This does not mean that elimination of all bias will be achieved. There is still much that can improve training to ensure implicit biases are not acted upon.

Implicit Bias Training Is Important

Implicit bias addresses behaviors not knowingly directed at treating people differently based on race, gender and other protected statuses. How training is conducted is critical. Implicit bias training must go beyond identification of overt bias; phrasing such as “stop being prejudiced” speaks to explicit bias – which is unconstitutional conduct. Programs such as those reflected by the term “fair and impartial policing” seek to be comprehensive, raising awareness of the potential implicit biases they hold—and for ways to ensure neutrality in overcoming those biases.

Implicit bias training is important because it shines light on a topic many are unwilling to touch in today’s policing environment for fear of community reprisal. It is important that in addressing bias officers are not signaled out—everyone experiences some degree of implicit bias no matter what. Don’t believe it? Unlike the general public, police officers have a constitutional duty. The point of training is to make officers aware of their potential biases to ensure they do not negatively impact their responsibility for fair and impartiality in the performance of their duties.

However, bias training is not the total answer. In Oak Park, Illinois, the full effect of diversity in policing and police attitudes came slowly. Changes included a more diverse police force, and most significantly, a civilian oversight board for the police department – though this tactic is not necessary the answer for every city and jurisdiction. Key to improvement was a more intertwined relationship between the community and the police department. During my 15 years as Police Chief, I worked to ensure the police were serving the actual needs of the community rather than its perceived needs.

Addressing Bias Early in Hiring Process

We knew that recruits, and existing police officers, held bias. Doing so is human nature. This awareness, that people bring certain biases with them to the workplace and are quite adept at concealing them, allowed us to probe the degree and anticipated impact of such biases. During the entry-level interview phase of the police hiring process in Oak Park we sought to confront an applicant’s biases. We included, as part of the hiring process and interview, a focus on having applicants disclose and reflect upon their experiences with diverse populations, based on race, sexual orientation, ethnicity and national origin, and the challenges they encountered doing so.

Reinforcing Policing Standards at Every Opportunity

We integrated diversity training and ethics into each and every in-service training, as a core component of our police service. We would also invite in members of the public not only to observe our training, but also to be a part of it. For example, we invited members of the African American community to discuss with our officers what it felt like to be stopped by the police and how officers could improve on that encounter.

We sought to operationalize community engagement across the entire service population. We worked with advocacy groups such as those who represent the LGBTQ community. We leveraged existing city agencies, including the Village’s Community Relations Department, to ensure that we approached our diversity goals from more than a law enforcement perspective.

As the leader of the organization, I felt it vitally important to know if our officers were exhibiting the values we tried to instill in them and the training they had received. An officer or civilian employee’s overt expression of bias either during an encounter with a citizen or simply expressed during private conversations between themselves serves to undermine respect for the community and the organization as a whole. That is why the Oak Park police department became one of the first police departments in the nation to conduct Citizen Satisfaction Surveys, as a way of measuring the quality of citizen-police interaction, as well as identifying areas where we could improve our customer service.

Future Strategy for Sustainability

Instituting diversity and ethics training into our regular training curriculum, conducting citizen satisfaction surveys and reaching out to all segments of the community proved beneficial in eliciting community support for police initiatives and involving the community in the crime fighting quality of life initiative.

However, the positive support the police department enjoyed with the community could not have been achieved without each and every member of the department putting their biases aside trying to make each and every encounter with the public as positive as possible, regardless of a person’s race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. It is the actions of the officer on the beat that determines how the public feels about its police department, not what the public feels about its police chief.

Supporting diversity and eliminating biased actions are critical for constitutional policing. Key factors that contributed to successful policing in Oak Park were:

  • Commitment to Equality
  • Professionalism
  • Realistic and Committed Investment
  • Shared Police/Community Ownership
  • Open Communication
  • Defined Responsibility
  • Transparency

The key lesson from Oak Park is this: the police department should be a reflection of community values. Oak Park valued diversity and oversight in policing to ensure any misconduct was fairly addressed, and these values brought about positive change in the department. Even when implicit biases are present, in a community emulating a positive police-citizen interaction these biases will be less likely to impact police relationships and decisions negatively. While Oak Park police officers participated in bias training, the real success of the training was how their attitudes and values reflected those of the community.

The Value of a Community-Focused Policing Approach

A community-focused policing approach, predicated upon open and transparent communication and grounded in shared values will have a greater impact on a police department than a simple training session ever could. Limiting the negative impact of biased policing is a responsibility of both the police and the community. If individuals are polarized and unwilling to communicate openly, it is unlikely that successful community and police engagement will occur. The lesson from Oak Park is important: the police are accountable and should reflect the values of procedural justice. Open and honest communication with the community allows for shared understanding and values, which in turn is reflected in strong police and community relationships.