As U.S. law enforcement departments are accused of racist policing, one of the most common responses by the people in charge has been to have officers take “implicit bias” training.
The training usually consists of a seminar in the psychological theory that unconscious stereotypes can lead people to make dangerous snap judgments. For instance, unconscious associations of African Americans with crime might make cops quicker to see them as suspects.
After the 2014 Ferguson, Mo., protests, states rushed to require the training. Now a majority do, with New Jersey joining the list late last month.
But despite the boom in implicit bias training, there has been little real-life research into whether it actually changes what police officers do on the job.
“It’s like I’m offering you a pill to fix some disease, and I haven’t tested to see whether it actually works,” says Joshua Correll, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studies racial bias. “Expecting that we can take people in and train them to reduce their implicit bias — I don’t think it’s been supported by the literature.”
That’s why Correll is excited about a new study at the New York Police Department that allowed researchers to track the effects of mandatory implicit bias training as it was implemented in 2018.
Their findings? As measured in surveys before and after their training, NYPD officers expressed more awareness of the concept of implicit bias and greater willingness to try to manage it.
“We could certainly say that the training can be credited with elevating officers’ comprehension of what implicit bias is,” says Robert E. Worden, director of the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety in Albany, N.Y., and the lead author of the study.
But then the researchers examined data about NYPD officers’ actions on the job before and after the training. Specifically, they looked at a breakdown of the ethnic disparities among the people who were arrested and had other kinds of interactions with those officers. And in those numbers, they found no meaningful change.
“It’s fair to say that we could not detect effects of the training on officers’ enforcement behaviors,” says Worden.
Worden calls it a “null result”: It doesn’t prove implicit bias training changes cops’ behavior, but it doesn’t disprove it either.
The trainers are undeterred.
“We believe that our training reduces biased behavior on the streets of the jurisdictions where we train,” says Lorie Fridell, the University of South Florida criminology professor who developed the “Fair and Impartial Policing” curriculum used in New York. “That the research didn’t detect those changes in behavioral outcomes does not mean that they did not occur.”
She points to the inherent difficulties in measuring real-life outcomes in policing, especially in a place like New York. Multiple other variables may have clouded the data, such as the city’s preexisting efforts to reduce race as a factor in police stops.
The NYPD brass also doesn’t seem to be bothered by the lack of change in behaviors.
“That wasn’t the objective,” says First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin B. Tucker. “The training was designed just to have them do some self-reflection and just to understand that any biases that they may have may creep into their job,” he says. “That awareness, we think, adds value in and of itself.”
Tucker says the training is worth the $5.5 million it costs per year.
Anecdotally, police officers around the U.S. are getting used to the training and even warming to it.
“I think that even the most cynical cop out there would agree that prejudice on the street is a problem and you’ve got to try to do something,” says Adam Plantinga, a San Francisco police sergeant who writes about policing.
Plantinga says his department’s training was “pretty good,” because it helped officers explore the unconscious associations that might affect their split-second decisions.
“If we approach a suspect who’s reaching for his pocket,” he says, “does that white suspect get a second or two more of a grace period than the suspect of color, before we draw our gun?”
But from a purely utilitarian perspective, do such moments of “self-reflection,” as the NYPD’s Tucker put it, actually lead to fairer policing, especially given the unresolved debate among researchers about how — or even whether — implicit bias governs behavior?
Correll, the psychology professor, says the training itself probably doesn’t hurt, but there’s an opportunity cost to consider, especially if the effort to “fix” implicit bias in officers displaces other kinds of training or gives a city an excuse to ignore factors that are external to policing.
“You don’t need to intervene at the level of the individual [police officer’s] brain,” Correll says. “You need to intervene at the level of the culture,” such as grappling with the reasons certain communities have more encounters with the police, such as poverty or public housing policies that end up concentrating particular ethnic groups in crime-prone areas.
Even one of the pioneers of the theory of implicit bias, Harvard University psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji, worries about the quality of implicit bias training for police.
“The teaching [of implicit bias concepts] has been in the hands of people called ‘diversity trainers,’ and they’re like politicians — they don’t have to have any expertise,” Banaji says, referring to the decentralized, entrepreneurial reality of the world of police consultants and trainers.
She doesn’t like the fact that departments usually make the training mandatory. That’s likely to create resistance, she says, and it defeats the goal of convincing officers that they stand to benefit from understanding their unconscious biases and learning ways to compensate for them.
At the same time, she says, even the best implicit bias training shouldn’t be expected to produce immediate changes in the behaviors of a whole police department.
“That, to me, is like saying, ‘Can I give you a lecture on climate change?’ and tomorrow you’re going to stop driving your car and start taking public transportation,” she says. “I don’t think the question is commensurate with the behavior that they’re measuring.”
She believes there are still years of research ahead before we can say we know how to deal effectively with implicit bias.
Others are trying to make progress on that. Following the NYPD study, the next major attempt to test the effectiveness of implicit bias training on police is work being done by Lois James, at Washington State University. She’s one of the developers of Counter Bias Training Simulation, a curriculum that uses video scenarios in shooting simulators to show officers the dangers created by implicit bias.
The hope is that a more hands-on experience will have a deeper impact, but she’s not assuming it works.
“As someone who’s literally developed an implicit bias program, [I think] it would be irresponsible for us to not test the outcome,” James says. “It can’t be just speculation.”
She’s in the middle of an experiment with the Sacramento Police Department in which some officers will get her simulator-based training, some will get traditional, seminar-style implicit bias training and some will get neither. Then her graduate students will review the body camera videos of officers’ interactions with the public — before and after the training period — and score them for how civilly the officers treat each ethnic group.
James says she finds it “disheartening” that the NYPD study found no behavioral change, and she says, “Many people are expecting me to find nothing too, but we’ll see.”
Even if her study also finds no behavioral change, she says, “it doesn’t mean we should eradicate implicit bias training. It just means we have to work harder.”