It’s not easy telling cops they’re biased, but Lorie Fridell has made it her speciality.
A nationally recognized expert in a field known as implicit bias, Fridell and her team of trainers have visited hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country to explain how subconscious notions about people can affect police work and how officers can manage these prejudices.
Now Fridell, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, is tackling her biggest job yet. The Tampa woman’s company, Fair and Impartial Policing, is two months into a two-year, $4.5 million contract to train the New York Police Department’s sworn employees — about 36,000 people.
The training begins as the nation’s largest municipal police force works to improve community relations in the wake of police killings and a federal lawsuit over unconstitutional stops. But the size and the circumstances don’t change the lesson the trainers drive home on the first day:
Cops aren’t biased because they’re cops. They’re biased because they’re human.
"We tell people this is a course about science, about how the human mind works and can play tricks on you," Fridell said. "Implicit bias can occur outside your conscious awareness and can make you an ineffective, unsafe, as well as an unjust police officer."
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The chain of events that led to Fridell’s hiring in New York began with a landmark court ruling.
In 2013, a federal judge found the NYPD liable for a pattern of stop-and-frisk encounters with minorities. The court appointed a monitor to oversee reforms.
Among the court’s recommendations was implicit bias training, said Darius Charney, a senior attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the suit.
"From our perspective, the issues around bias were really central to our case," Charney said.
The following year, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo held Eric Garner in a choke hold over suspicion he was selling loose cigarettes. Garner, who was black, could be heard saying, "I can’t breathe" as Pantaleo, a white officer, held the 43-year-old father of four’s throat until his body went limp.
Garner’s death sparked national outrage. The NYPD vowed to begin implicit bias training.
Some pushed back against bias training, including Sergeants Benevolent Association president Ed Mullins, who told the New York Post it was "bull----."
"We don’t believe in it," Mullins said at the time.
Mullins did not respond to the Tampa Bay Times. A spokesman for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents NYPD officers, declined an interview request.
An NYPD spokesman released a statement to the Times.
"The focus of the training is to bring awareness of human bias and its impact on perceptions and behaviors of even those who, at a conscious level, reject prejudice," the statement said. "It addresses skills to reduce and manage human bias."
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Fridell’s passion in challenging implicit bias and its implications for police bloomed around the turn of the last century, when it helped her reconcile two seemingly conflicting credos.
"I came to believe that biased policing is widespread, but that most cops are well-intentioned individuals who want to serve their communities," she said. "I couldn’t understand how both of those things could be true until I was introduced to the science of implicit bias."
At the time, Fridell was already working for the Police Executive Research Forum, developing resources for leaders on the topic of general police bias. She joined the University of South Florida in 2005, and in 2009, received a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a curriculum on implicit bias.
By 2013, she was traveling the country training at law enforcement agencies of every size. Some receive the training through federal grants to USF while others, including the NYPD, pay Fridell’s company directly. Fridell and her trainers have, by her estimate, directly trained thousands of personnel at hundreds of law enforcement agencies.
Several local police agencies, including the Tampa and St. Petersburg police departments and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, have used Fridell’s program or something similar.
Clearwater police Maj. David Dalton brought Fridell’s training to then-Chief Tony Holloway, who made it mandatory for sworn personnel. Holloway has since done the same as chief in St. Petersburg.
Dalton said officers tend to be skeptical at first.
"But when you start talking about what science says about human interaction, it really opens their eyes," he said. "It’s about giving cops the tools to be better at the job."
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Fridell says the skepticism and hostility can be more pronounced at agencies like the NYPD that are under court order for reform.
That skepticism is one reason why all of Fridell’s trainers are current or retired law enforcement officers.
"If we’re going to stand in front of a room on this topic, I need credible people, and for many people, that’s not going to be an academic," she said.
One of the first lessons is on the difference between explicit and implicit biases. The former are the prejudices and attitudes we’re consciously aware of, including overt racism. Implicit bias involves all our subconscious feelings, attitudes and stereotypes.
"In the past, we’ve treated police officers as if they all have explicit biases, as if they’re racists who have animus and hostility toward people and are unconcerned about discriminatory behavior," Fridell said.
"Past courses have been about finger pointing or blaming. Ours is about humans and the biases that we all have."
Implicit bias doesn’t require animus but it can cause discriminatory behavior, Fridell said.
Studies show people of all races assume men are more violent than women. They link African-Americans with aggression. And there are unconscious stereotypes, positive and negative, about religion, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation.
Some implicit associations can be based in fact. People of color are disproportionately represented among street criminals, but Fridell says that’s explained by two more pieces of data: Low-income people are disproportionately represented among people who commit crime, and people of color are disproportionately represented among low-income levels.
"Even if our associations are based in part on fact, we err when we treat the individual as if they fit a stereotype," she said. "Most men are not criminals. Most blacks do not commit crime."
The key, she says, is to recognize biases and then learn how to manage them. Fridell and her trainers advise police to slow down situations when possible to gather more information and ask themselves how their biases may be affecting their behavior.
Charney, the Center for Constitutional Rights attorney, warned that bias training is not a "silver bullet" and must be packaged with measures to hold police accountable. He also noted that there are no conclusive studies to show that the training works.
Fridell said she is working on a controlled study to do that. She also points to evidence of changed attitudes among trainees.
"They say, ‘When I look back to what I did last week, I can see I was impacted by my biases,’?" she said. "This is huge that they’re able to take this training and apply it to their own behavior."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.