Implicit Bias Cop Out

The San Francisco Police Department announced on April 28th that all officers will undergo mandatory implicit bias training. The order stems from its recent investigation of outrageous verbal statements and photographic images shared via online communications by members of the police. As examples, black people were referenced as ‘savages” and Latinos as “beaners”. Other content is even more blatantly derogatory and also targeted members of the LGBT community. Several officers have been dismissed.
There’s no doubt that all of us live with some levels of implicit bias, e.g., unconscious prejudices which drive our actions. Implicit bias training can accomplish a lot to bring them out and, hopefully, change some of them. While addressing such processes is important, we should remember that what is often labeled unconscious may be consciously purposeful – we just can’t prove it. In this instance, that’s not the case. Here, the content transmitted and forwarded by the officers involved illustrated explicit biases as overt, obvious and intentional as you can imagine. For that reason, training the City’s police force on the nuances of their unconscious thoughts, when much of the harmful conduct at issue is overtly purposeful and blatant, is absurd.
Instead, the Department’s focus should be on clearly and frequently communicating and enforcing its values, and behavioral standards, and driving home the point from top level to front line officials that they apply at all times and in all contexts. Accountability will be vital as will reinforcement through formal learning regarding bias, both implicit and purposeful, and informal means back on the job. Doing otherwise and assuming that improper behaviors will somehow disappear through enlightening officers on their hidden biases is in effect allowing bad conduct to continue. That would be the ultimate cop out.

  • John Holly says:

    Great thoughts Steve. On point.

  • Rob says:

    Outrageous, disappointing, duplicitous, a diversionary tactic … and … the wave of the future. It’s all PR, no substance, just like its predecessor, “The Diversity Paradigm.”

  • Chris Osborn says:

    There is no question that the instances of bias that the SFPD is trying to address are more of the overt, than the implicit, variety. However, do not implicit manifestations and explicit expressions of bias have similar, if not the same, roots? And how likely is a training program focused only on the egregious and overt instances of unabashedly prejudiced behavior to be benefited from (or even be received well by) the likely majority of officers who were not involved in these incidents? How likely are such folks to pay attention, or feel like they have anything to learn or gain by participating in that kind of training (since clearly they are not as bad as the worst actors who got caught). Addressing implicit bias might be a means of making the training more likely to be considered relevant to everyone in the SFPD, regardless of whether and how they might have been involved in the more egregious incidents.
    As I understand it (having delivered a few programs on the topic around the country), implicit bias training, at a minimum, seeks to heighten awareness of all employees of the harm of even subtle or unconscious comments (by which one “means no harm” but may be oblivious to the effects of even his or her well-intentioned words); at its best, it can also have the effect of encouraging, equipping, and empowering employees who witness others acting out of conscious OR unconscious bias to speak up on behalf of the victim recipients, ideally in a winsome manner that is calculated to be actually effective (as opposed to getting into pointless arguments or shaming the offender for being bad, ignorant, etc.) The SFPD’s training may well be designed to have broader appeal (well, to the extent any OTJ training can be said to have “appeal,” I suppose), and broader effect than merely reminding everyone that overtly racist thoughts and actions are really really bad. (I suspect that even the egregious offenders already “know” that, on some level; I doubt this training would be the first suggestion of that concept to the majority of them–they do live in California, after all. 😉 )
    My greater concern with your post, though, is the suggestion that the SFPD can bring about real change by “clearly and frequently communicating and enforcing its values, and behavioral standards, and driving home the point from top level to front line officials that they apply at all times and in all contexts,” along with “accountability” and ” reinforcement through formal learning regarding bias, both implicit and purposeful, and informal means back on the job.” With all due respect, it sounds like you are advocating purely informational solutions for what is in fact a behavioral psychology-based of problem. (i.e., involving the question of why people believe what they believe, and do what they do, and even do things they themselves know to be wrong or hurtful to themselves or others). Biases of any form (implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious, with or without archetypal foundation), didn’t get imprinted, passed on, or absorbed in a day through a mere lecture, pamphlet or presentation, and they are not going to be rooted out in a few hours or days by such left-brained-focused means, either. Real change in habits, beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors requires an educational model that is built on sound adult learning principles. Employees need to be (1) awakened to the fact that we (yes, all of us, no matter how “enlightened” we may claim to be) have biases, and then equipped to identify them ; (2) helped to understand the ways those biases can show up harmfully (even though unintentionally), (3) given time and a safe environment to explore the potential origins (cultural, familial, experiential, etc.) of their biases (in order to “pull them up by the roots,” so to speak), and (4) equipped with practical guidance for how to address instances of bias winsomely and effectively when they occur. Add in some purposeful guidance, modeling, and exercises designed to foster healthy, proactive cross-cultural engagement, and the chances of making a lasting difference int he workplace increase dramatically.
    My limited experience with ELI (having heard Tucker Miller speak at a conference) is that you guys “get” this idea, so that why I was a little surprised to see the solution you prescribed. (But maybe I misread or misunderstood?) In any event, thanks for contributing to the conversation on this important topic.

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