This blog was co-written by Debra Kirby, Esq. and Mary Macleod

Only bunnies can tell another bunny they are cute. As professionals trained to be alert to implicit bias, this is one of the key lessons we take away from a seemingly innocuous children’s animated film, Zootopia. For those not familiar with the Oscar-winning animated film, this smash-hit movie is about a  rabbit determined to become a police officer – even though everyone knows that bunnies cannot be the police.

Zootopia centers on the relationships between predator and prey animals where they all live, peacefully, in the massive city of Zootopia. However, when the predators begin to go rogue and attack prey animals, chaos ensues. Within the seemingly neutral confines of animation and barnyard animals is an important lesson on the traps of implicit bias and their impact on perception and action.

Teaching Implicit Bias Awareness

Implicit Bias, or implicit social cognition, are stereotypes and beliefs that people hold subconsciously. Most people are not aware of their implicit bias and in fact they can completely counter their personal set of beliefs. Implicit bias is similar to systemic or institutional racism, insomuch that they are difficult to see unless you personally experience them every day. Implicit bias is not only present when addressing racial differences, but also impacts beliefs regarding sex, religion, sexual orientation and disability status.

The movie, whose target audience is children, includes some great examples of the display and impact of implicit bias. For example, when a bunny becomes the newest police recruit, the rest of the department is shocked; no one believes that a little bunny can be a strong police officer. Nor does anyone believe a fox is good and trustworthy. Lambs are not viewed as ruthless leaders. These beliefs, all put forth within the movie, are examples of implicit bias – and in some cases, explicit bias.

However, unlike in Zootopia, when implicit bias influences the decision of a police officer, it can have a significant impact on the communities served by police departments. Unfortunately, there is no neutral way to address implicit bias in law enforcement, as the real life issues resonate across much of the criminal justice system and the desire of communities to be safe.

Training Law Enforcement on Implicit Bias

The Department of Justice and other law enforcement professional organizations have developed and recommended training for law enforcement agencies on implicit bias, throughout the organization. The thought behind this training is that once an officer becomes aware that they do have bias they can actively work to counteract those thoughts and behaviors.

Two Seconds to Make a Decision

Being more aware of decision factors is important both for public safety and community engagement. In Malcolm Gladwell’s novel Blink, he discusses that the brain instinctually will react and decide if a situation is dangerous within two seconds. Often, there is nothing reasoned about this decision. For police, some decisions end in violence. The belief behind such training is that the more neutral the decision framework and process followed by a police officer in assessing a situation, the more likely a factual outcome that is not based in implicit bias will result.

For example, in one civilian study, participants played a computer game that required them to differentiate between armed and unarmed men, and to differentiate between white and black men. Participants reacted faster and “shot“ armed black men more than armed white men. Furthermore, participants produced more false errors regarding unarmed black men than unarmed white men. This study illustrates the issue of implicit bias. As with Zootopia, this study is not real life, but its implications translate to real life situations and the very real impacts of implicit bias.

Applying Lessons on Implicit Bias to Real Life

Recent dialogue, debate and protest activity throughout the United States reflects the impact that perceptions of bias – and the role of implicit bias – may play in tragic outcomes. Until the issue of bias in policing decisions is addressed fully and effectively, the problem will remain. Training is a start, but evidence-based approaches need to be expanded and integrated into ongoing training and community dialogue. Law enforcement agencies should review available curriculum and begin education on the role of bias and its impact, and the responsibility of a police officer to act without bias, on the first day of a recruit’s training and continuously throughout their career.

As a nation, we need to help ensure a strong focus on organizational messages, intrusive supervision and ongoing police partnership and engagement with diverse communities. This focus is critical if we are to limit the impact of implicit bias in policing communities across the United States.

Unlike Zootopia, which ended with predator and prey peacefully co-existing again, the real world is more complicated. Generations of pain arising from bias – both implicit and explicit – directed at race, sex, gender, religion and disability status is not as easily overcome. It is difficult to truly reduce implicit bias. Instead, we all, as individuals, need to make a conscious effort every day to reduce the influence of it on our professional and personal decisions. It’s a small step with enormous implications for scores of Zootopias across the country.