Police Training and Racial Justice

 Puzzle graphic web-training-proofreadThe Black Lives Matter movement has brought about a long-overdue conversation about use of force and racial disparities in policing. But how do we move from the soundbites of “better training” and “more accountability” to concrete, on-the-ground changes in policing practices?

For the past seven months, ICPJ has been mobilizing a Police Policy, Procedures, and Training Review Team to look for the best practices regarding police training, use of force, and other procedures. In spring 2016 we will release our full draft recommendations for public input. Until then here is a snapshot of some of our recommendations around police training.

Addressing Race and Policing: It’s a Puzzle

Dealing with race and policing is a puzzle. It may not be easy to solve, but it can be done. And the solution will have to bring together multiple pieces. ICPJ’s Police Policy, Procedures, and Training Review Team has identified four elements of addressing race within police training: Cultural Competency Training, Sound Police Procedures, Implicit Bias Mitigation, and Understanding Racial Context. This month we cover cultural competency and police procedures, our spring issue will cover implicit bias and racial context.

These four elements, within a context of ongoing career development, can significantly address issues of racial disparities within policing. However, law enforcement occurs within a broader context of racial inequity. Therefore, even if law enforcement agencies were able to respond perfectly to issues of race and racism, we would continue to see racial disparities in law enforcement so long as there continues to be racially segregated housing, racial disparities in education and

healthcare, racial bias in hiring and promotions, etc. Addressing race within law enforcement is essential, but it does not eliminate the need for a broader work for racial justice

Cultural Competency Training

I remember Aleem, a high school classmate from Pakistan, telling me about eye contact. He explained that in his culture it is considered disrespectful for a person in a lower social position (such as a student) to make direct eye contact with someone in a higher position (such as a teacher). But what would a typical American teacher assume if a student refused to make eye contact? Most likely the teacher would assume that the student was being evasive.

Learning to recognize your own cultural assumptions and how others’ cultures affect their behavior is called cultural competency.

What does this have to do with policing? Law enforcement professionals need to deal with people from a wide variety of cultures, including cultural differences along racial lines. Just like the teachers at my school, they need to recognize these cultural differences and not interpret all behavior from their own cultural background. Just like Aleem’s teachers needed to understand that his avoidance of eye contact was a sign of respect, likewise a police officer who questioned someone from Pakistan or from some other Asian cultures must also realize that avoidance of eye contact is not a sign of evasion.

Executive assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Dawkins Davis gave an example of this at the 16th ENPACT forum on October 21, 2015. She described a colleague being furious that a witness said that he only knew a long-time friend as “Unc.” To the white attorney, it was impossible to imagine that the witness could be friends with someone for years and only know him by his nickname. To the attorney, this was a sign that the witness was not credible.

Ms. Dawkins was able to chime in, however, and say that from her experience as an African American, there were many people in her community that she only knew by their nickname. There was a cultural difference here, and her colleague’s lack of cultural competency interfered with his ability to accurately assess the credibility of the witness.

Sound Policing Procedures (e.g. Procedural Justice)

At a recent ENPACT police/community forum, a white community member from western Washtenaw County shared his story of being pulled over for expired plates. He didn’t have his driver’s license with him at the time, and as a result was handcuffed in front of his elementary school-aged son and held while the officer ran his name. He was at the forum to understand why he was treated that way for expired plates and no ID. He didn’t object to being stopped or ticketed, but the way he was treated in the stop—and the lack of an explanation for his treatment—soured his relationship with law enforcement.

This incident shows how police behavior can improve or harm community trust. Add in to the factor of race and the potential for distrust and disparity in treatment increases.

One way to help address this is through solid police procedures, such as the Chicago model of procedural justice and police legitimacy, which consists of four elements:  1) being fair in processes 2) being transparent in actions 3) providing opportunity for voice 4) being impartial in decision making.

These four practices help ensure that the law enforcement officials conduct themselves in a way that is fair and that builds public trust. You can imagine the traffic stop above being better received if the officer had been more transparent in the reasons for putting the motorist in the car.

The procedural justice model was developed in Chicago, and the protests over the killing of Laquan McDonald shows that just training in these four elements is not sufficient to ensure racial justice in policing. In part 2 of this series we will address to additional issues, implicit bias mitigation and understanding of racial context, that put in other pieces of the puzzle.

Implicit Bias Mitigation

In the Christian tradition, the Apostle Paul wrote, “The evil that I do not want to do, that is what I do.” Even those of us who profess to oppose racism and support equality can still hold racial biases. An emerging field of psychological research shows that these biases can exist and affect our behavior even when we are unaware of them. These “implicit biases” can be in conflict with our explicit values and beliefs.

As this applies to race, the messages our culture perpetuates can create biases against African Americans, Latinos, and other racial minorities, even among members of those groups.

At the November 9, 2015 Washtenaw County Equity Summit Sheriff Jerry Clayton spoke about his experience taking the Harvard Implicit Association Assessment. “As an African American who feels he’s pretty self-aware and all that stuff, I had to take it three or four time, ‘cause the outcome didn’t come like I thought it was supposed to. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I teach cultural competency courses. How can I have this bias around people that look like me?’”

New training methods are emerging that recognize the recent research into implicit bias. The most prominent is the Fair and Impartial Policing framework. The program recognized that, “While training cannot easily undo the implicit associations that took a lifetime to develop, the social psychologists have shown that, with information and motivation, people can implement controlled (unbiased) behavioral responses that override automatic (biased) associations.”

Expecting officers to be “impartial in decision making,” as described in the Procedural Justice model, is an excellent expectation, but it can only be followed if we give officers the tools to recognize and mitigate implicit bias.

Understanding Racial Context

In November of 2014, a video went viral of an Oakland County Sheriff’s deputy questioning Brandon McKean, a 25-year-old African American man, saying, “You were walking by … well you were making people nervous,” the deputy says in the video McKean recorded, above. “They said you had your hands in your pockets.”

The Deputy was responding to a 911 call from a local business. If this incident is indeed a bias-based police stop, the bias that initiated it was that of the business owner. Even if the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department had perfect officers, dispatchers, policies, and procedures in terms of dealing with race, biases such as the business owner’s will result in racially disparate outcomes.

That’s why it’s important for law enforcement personnel to understand the racial context in which they work. Given the widespread racial bias and racialized inequality, it is just not enough for an officer to check her or his own biases, he or she must be aware of how others’ biases affect the situation and take steps to mitigate that impact.

At a more advanced level, this understanding for racial context is a nuanced understanding of structural racism. The Aspen Institute defines structural racism as system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time.

Putting the Pieces Together: Ongoing Professional Development

The four elements listed above are a lot, but the understanding is that they are essential for a law enforcement professionals to address the cultural differences among the populations they serve, engage the community with practices that build trust, mitigate the ways their implicit biases might impact their policing, and police in a way that is sensitive to the broader context of racial stratification.

Implementation of these recommendations will require an ongoing investment in the professional development of law enforcement personnel on an ongoing basis, from the police academy curriculum to ongoing training for officers and command staff. Just as police go through ongoing training and practice on firearm use, defensive tactics, etc., it is also important that they receive ongoing professional development related to issues of race and racism (the need for such ongoing training is not limited to law enforcement. It is also important for educators, health care providers, HR personnel, etc.

Local experience with Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) highlights the importance of ongoing commitment. In 2003 and 2004, officers from five area law enforcement agencies underwent extensive CIT training to develop the skills and systems to respond to situations involving mental illness or developmental disorders. Soon after that, though, the departments faced budget constraints, the training was not maintained, and the programs withered. Training on racial aspects of policing cannot follow the same path; it must be an ongoing commitment of the departments with a consistent training, monitoring, and leadership.

Positive Signs Locally

While in some ways it would be nice to have groundbreaking recommendations to share, it is better that we can report that local law enforcement agencies are already at work implementing some of these proposals. The University of Michigan Department of Public Safety officers recently went through cultural competency training. Sheriff Clayton has discussed procedural justice at public events. Eastern Michigan University Department of Public Safety is bringing in Fair and Impartial Policing for its officers, command staff, and the public.

We applaud these efforts. They show that local law enforcement agencies recognize the importance of addressing race and racial disparities in law enforcement. Moving forward, we hope to see these efforts more widely dispersed and integrated into an ongoing, comprehensive approach to racial justice in policing.

Next Steps

As Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice and the Citizen Advisory Committee finalizes our recommendations we will be rolling out an advocacy campaign to help local law enforcement agencies to commit in implementing our recommendations. While there are many positive signs locally, grassroots action will be needed to ensure that these policies are adopted broadly, comprehensively, and sustained over time. Contact [email protected] or 734-663-1870 for details.

ICPJ’s 2016 program focus will be on racial justice and economic equality. This is the first in a series highlighting concrete policy proposals ICPJ will be putting forward to address this theme. To read more, download our Winter 2015 newsletter.