The Fair and Impartial Policing Perspective

The “fair and impartial policing perspective” reflects a new way of thinking about the issue of biased policing.  It is based on the science of bias, which tells us that biased policing is not, as some contend, due to widespread racism in policing.  In fact, the science tells that even well-intentioned humans (and thus, officers) manifest biases that can impact on their perceptions and behavior.  These biases can manifest below consciousness. 

Social psychologists have shown that “implicit” or “unconscious” bias can impact what people perceive and do, even in people who consciously hold non-prejudiced attitudes.  Implicit bias might lead the line officer to automatically perceive crime in the making when she observes two young Hispanic males driving in an all-Caucasian neighborhood or lead an officer to be “under-vigilant” with a female subject because he associates crime and violence with males.  It may manifest among agency command staff who decide (without crime-relevant evidence) that the forthcoming gathering of African-American college students bodes trouble, whereas the forthcoming gathering of white undergraduates does not.

The implication of the science is that even the best law enforcement officers may manifest bias because they are human, and even the best agencies, because they hire humans, must be proactive in producing fair and impartial policing.   Agencies (at least those that hire humans) need to implement what is called a “comprehensive program to produce fair and impartial policing.”  This program addresses the ill-intentioned police who produce biased policing and the overwhelming number of well-intentioned police in this country who aspire to fair and impartial policing, but who are human like the rest of us.  Elements of this comprehensive program encompass (a) recruitment/hiring; (b) agency policy; (c) training; (d) leadership supervision and accountability; (e) assessing institutional practices and policies; (f) outreach to diverse communities; and (g) measurement. 

The training element of the comprehensive program is critical for changing the way we think about biased policing in this country and preventing its occurrence.  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.  The implication is that law enforcement departments need to provide training that makes personnel aware of their unconscious biases so that they are able and motivated to activate controlled responses to counteract them.

The FIP perspective has been placed into five training programs. There is a 1.5-day command level (or command and community stakeholder) training.  With COPS Office funds, curriculums for recruits/patrol officers (6 hours) and for first-line supervisors (5 hours) have been developed.   There is a train-the-trainer session during which trainers learn to implement the recruit/patrol and supervisor curriculums in their own agencies/academies. And new as of July 2013 (by popular demand) is the training curriculum for mid-management (e.g., Captains). All of the curriculums described above have received very positive evaluations from participants.

The FIP perspective conveys more accurately how bias might manifest in policing. And the further great news about the FIP perspective is that it reduces (the very understandable) police defensiveness around this issue and is embraced by community members who are concerned about biased policing.   Both of these impacts are critical for producing change in jurisdictions—change that can be produced jointly by police and the members of the communities they serve.

Evidence-based policing is not just about implementing better informed and tested crime control approaches, but also about how to effectively achieve fair and impartial policing. Developing and implementing training to control implicit bias that is based in rigorous science, not conjecture or personal beliefs, is especially important to this long-standing aspiration of enforcement and community stakeholders. And it appears practice is headed in the right direction. Several states are moving toward state-wide adoption of the FIP curricula, including, including Kansas, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and South Carolina. The Special Litigation Unit (SLU) of the USDOJ, which investigates agencies that are suspected of engaging in unconstitutional practices, including biased policing, is promoting (and, in some cases requiring) training that addresses how unconscious or implicit biases impact on even well-meaning officers. The COPS Office, that has invested $1 million in the FIP initiative, is currently supporting train-the-trainer sessions around the nation and bringing FIP training to agencies at risk for SLU investigations with the hopes that those agencies can get on track to produce fair and impartial policing and avoid SLU intervention.