Training to overcome institutional racial bias in policing

Published May 14, 2012

Police officers in America shoot and kill African-Americans four times more often than whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That figure actually reflects progress from the 1970s, when the ratio was 8 to 1.

These stark numbers raise serious questions about bias in American law enforcement. George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, was not a sworn officer, but to understand the deeper racial implications of the case — and what the nation might learn from them — attention must shift to the police and their practices. The widespread hunger for justice generated by Martin's death has fueled a broader re-examination of race, racism and criminal justice in America. That examination ought to focus on the nature and extent of institutional bias in policing.

I come from a law enforcement family, have studied institutional bias in policing for nearly a decade, and have advised London's Metropolitan Police Service on issues of race and diversity. Understanding the link between police practices and persistent problems is critical for helping police departments develop effective strategies and training for addressing bias and building legitimacy with the public.

In the past three or so months, Martin is one of three unarmed black teenagers to be killed by police or community patrols. On Feb. 2, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham was fatally shot in his Bronx, N.Y., apartment by an undercover NYPD narcotics officer. Police officers who had observed Graham on the street claimed they saw a gun in his waistband. On March 24 in Pasadena, Calif., 19-year-old Kendrec McDade was shot and killed by police responding to a report of a stolen laptop. Officers maintain they thought McDade was armed and reaching into his waistband for a gun. In addition to a local police investigation of the shooting, the FBI is conducting its own.

Internal investigations in such cases examine whether the officer who shot was in imminent danger or believed himself to be so. Investigators also consider bias but often focus exclusively on the attitudes and behavior of an individual — instances of overt racism, such as derogatory language, racial slurs or intentional acts of discrimination. However, it's equally important to root out institutional bias — an organization's processes, attitudes and behaviors that collectively amount to discrimination. It typically results from unconscious prejudice, ignorance, racial stereotyping or thoughtlessness.

In Sanford on the night of Martin's death, police detained and questioned Zimmerman for upward of seven hours before releasing him. Police did not subject Zimmerman to drug and alcohol testing, a routine practice in homicide cases. Officers did not check Zimmerman's criminal record until the day after the shooting. Police had Martin's cellphone, yet failed to examine his calls. Had they done so, they would have discovered Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend at the time of the shooting and could have questioned her immediately.

Police did not canvass the neighborhood the night of the shooting. If they had, they would have realized that Martin died fewer than 100 feet from the house of his father's fiancee. His body could have been identified rather than taken to the morgue and classified as a "John Doe." Police allowed more than a week to pass before interviewing a teenage witness to part of the struggle between Martin and Zimmerman. These are but some of the problems with the police investigation that led people across the country to take to the streets in protest.

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What caused police to treat Martin's death as such an open-and-shut case? In the weeks and months ahead, local and federal officials will continue to search for answers. Nothing publicly reported thus far suggests overt or intentional police discrimination. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that bias did not play a significant role.

Local and federal officials should examine the priorities and overall structure of police practice and supervision in the Sanford Police Department. They should evaluate operational techniques and police training. They should assess police leadership and organizational culture. They should look for organizational patterns that promote unintentional bias in the everyday policing that takes place on the street. Doing so will help officials determine whether and how institutional bias might explain why serious errors were made in what should have been a standard homicide investigation.

Uncovering institutional bias requires identifying disparities in outcomes resulting from "the way things have always been done" — established policies or practices that have a disproportionate and negative impact on minorities.

This kind of institutionalized inequality has been a major point of contention between communities of color and law enforcement for decades. It is found in the acid test of inner cities where the numbers of those stopped and frisked, arrested and incarcerated are substantially higher for African-Americans and Latinos than for whites. It lives in community concerns over racial profiling and aggressive police tactics. It exists in the fact that a black man in America is four times more likely than a white man to be shot and killed by police. It is the backdrop against which the Martin case will play out.

Law enforcement officials and policymakers have long relied on community policing as an antidote to bias. Community policing has helped police departments enhance communication and build greater trust and confidence with diverse communities. But it is not the one-size-fits-all solution for fixing patterns of bias in police shootings, claims of excessive force or brutality cases. Nor has it addressed the perceived lack of evenhandedness in police investigations or routine practices such as stops and searches. Additional methods are needed.

First, police chiefs need more information on what is going on in their departments. Researchers can help by conducting pattern and practice investigations to analyze whether police practices on the street are disproportionately applied or have a disproportionately negative impact on particular communities. The data could also be used to develop appropriate metrics and monitoring systems, enabling police chiefs to identify and respond to institutional bias where it exists.

Additional training is also essential. Much police-community race relations training focuses on awareness, not core critical thinking or problem solving skills. Police academy cadets and more senior officers would benefit from training and leadership development programs that use case studies, simulations and interactive role-play. These techniques enhance skills and knowledge and enable officers to approach street-level encounters with greater confidence. They also create an important opening in police departments to discuss issues of race and diversity more generally.

The problem is not that law enforcement fails to take claims of institutional bias seriously. As a researcher, I have seen police chiefs' commitment to more dynamic forms of community engagement and organizational training. The problem is that they need new tools, better strategies and more effective training programs to identify and eliminate institutional bias from their departments. Recognizing and addressing that need is what is at stake in the Trayvon Martin investigation.

Michael Motto is a fellow of the Truman National Security Project and was a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology. He teaches and conducts research on policing and multiculturalism.