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.