The Science of Bias

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By Lisa Martinelli

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that since 1993, the rate of violent victimization in our country has declined by 72%. While various police efforts like data-driven policing and changes in technology have helped this overall decrease in crime, the issue of bias in policing remains a significant concern and has led many people to examine the science of bias. Dr. Lorie Fridell is an Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida, and creator of the Fair and Impartial Policing (FIP) training, which reflects a new way of thinking about biased policing. Fridell’s training is used widely to help officers understand their biases and recognize how those biases can affect their behavior.

Fridell grew up the daughter of two public school teachers in northern California, though her own passion for teaching surprised her. “Originally, I wasn’t that interested in teaching,” she admits, “but once I got in front of a class a couple of times, I decided that I loved it.” She received her Master’s Degree in Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine, and continued on to her Doctorate after encouragement by her advisor. “Social ecology is a multi-disciplinary approach to social and environmental problems. I had to memorize that,” she jokes. According to Fridell, crime in particular is an issue that requires a multi-disciplinary focus. “You’ll find people in criminology departments around the nation trained in sociology, psychology, economics, and social work. Social ecology recognizes that some of the issues with which we deal can’t be looked at with one particular perspective, but require instead a broad perspective.”

Though Fridell has worked mostly as a professor and has more than twenty-two years of teaching experience at the college level, she left academia for six years to further explore and research bias in policing. Between 1999 and 2005, she worked as the Director of Research at the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving policing. Right around the time Fridell joined PERF, bias in policing re-emerged as a major issue in our country due to heightened media coverage and became known as “racial profiling.” “It is especially true that one reason I took the job at PERF was because I thought this was an important issue, and being there was a great vantage point for me to work on it,” she says. “It was very exciting for me.”

During her time at PERF, Fridell spoke on racial profiling at policing conferences. Her experience as a professor undoubtedly helped her, though she admits to feeling quite nervous early on because of the negative way people thought about racial profiling. “I knew that this was one of the least favorite topics of police, so I thought surely I would get passionate, negative responses to my presentations on this topic,” she says. “In fact, I did not get that response. In retrospect, I think I was spared because it was not ‘politically correct’ to challenge the ‘racial profiling lady,’ especially since I had the PERF linkage. But I wonder to this day what they were thinking.”

While at PERF, Fridell and her colleagues received a number of grants from the Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (DOJ COPS) Office, allowing her to consult with many different experts and reflect about racially-biased policing. She began speaking with social psychologists who study human biases, and those conversations led her to develop the FIP training. Though Fridell started doing command-level training in 2008, she didn’t incorporate the science- based perspective until pilot sessions throughout 2009 and 2010. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, with attendees saying things like, “I was very, very surprised and happy to receive this training,” and “[The] most relevant discussions on the topic of race relations I have heard in 14 years.” These kinds of responses motivated Fridell to continue training. “Hearing that the training has changed the way [officers] think about bias in policing, and that they will be thinking about their own biases in the future makes me think that what we are doing is very worthwhile,” she says. “I like to hear officers who have taken the training share that they have reflected back on some actions they took and realized that they were biased. This is a critically important insight that bodes well for their future policing.”

The training helps officers to understand and recognize their own implicit biases so they can perform their duties more effectively. Implicit biases work below consciousness; the brain is designed to make “quick generalizations,” or “mental shortcuts,” and many people do not realize how this affects perceptions and behavior.

The FIP curriculum includes concepts from Malcolm Gladwell, a New York Times bestselling author who discusses unconscious thought in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He writes, “We don’t deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes. The giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from the experiences we’ve had, the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion.” People, because they are human, link groups to stereotypes without realizing it, and police are no exception. Gladwell goes on to say that “unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values.” In other words, any person, even a police officer, who consciously rejects stereotypes may still produce biased behavior. Fridell includes these concepts in the FIP training to help officers understand how their minds work so they can make a conscious effort to weaken their “blink responses,” which will subsequently lead to unbiased behavior. “I believe that many police and stakeholders narrowly characterize the nature and causes of biased policing,” she says. The narrow characterization Fridell refers to is that people sometimes believe that only ill-intentioned officers racially profile, but the science indicates that even well-meaning people can be affectedby their implicit biases.

When people link groups to stereotypes, they are categorizing—a process of placing individuals into groups based on physical differences including race, ethnicity, and gender. This helps people differentiate between things to understand the world. “One of the roots of biases is categorizing people,” Fridell says. “Infants don’t have that negative content we learn over time, but even infants recognize people who are different than they are, and that’s the beginning of categorizing and turning [those categories] into stereotypes and groups.” One of the ways police can reduce their biases is by using a concept called “The Contact Theory.” Fridell teaches officers that “frequent and positive interactions with people who are different from themselves can reduce both conscious and unconscious biases.” For example, the more positive personal contact an officer has with someone of a different skin color, or even socioeconomic status, the more likely he or she is to reduce implicit biases. Once that recognition occurs, the officer can work to make sure his or her behavior is unbiased.

Once I started to understand the science, it completely changed the way I thought about bias in policing,” Fridell says. “It is that science and perspective that has been placed into the FIP training curriculum.” Fridell has created five training curriculums for different levels of police departments, like patrol officers and first-line supervisors, and another called the “Train-the-Trainer” will be coming to Connecticut in early 2014.

Fridell continues to travel around the United States and Canada training and consulting with various police agencies, and maintains a high opinion of the police. “I think that overwhelmingly, police in this country are good people––heroes even––who want to do good, effective, and impartial policing. The way we used to think and talk about the topic of ‘racial profiling’ did not reflect that fact. The police have felt attacked, accused of being racists,” she says. “This has produced reactions from frustration to anger. I’m glad that the Fair and Impartial Policing perspective changes this discussion. We are no longer talking about ‘bad police,’ we are talking about the fact that police are human, like the rest of us.”

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