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USF professor challenges law enforcement to examine bias

In Sanford this month, Anna Laszlo explains a training scenario aimed at making police recruits more aware of gender bias.
In Sanford this month, Anna Laszlo explains a training scenario aimed at making police recruits more aware of gender bias.

TAMPA — The chief of the Sanford Police Department refers to the fallout from Trayvon Martin's shooting death as "the incident."

The accusations that his department is racist have lingered nearly two years.

And a University of South Florida professor understands why. Racial profiling has long plagued law enforcement. Officers sometimes act on prejudices. Sometimes they are wrongfully accused of doing so.

But we all have biases — whether or not we know it, says USF criminology professor Lorie Fridell, who recently won a $1 million federal grant to help law enforcement nationwide reduce and manage their biases.

She headed to Sanford this month to train 25 police instructors, who had traveled from across North America for her "Fair and Impartial Policing" program.

They were skeptical.

Law enforcement officers are accustomed to being told not to stereotype. "You're not going to change people in two days," Tampa police Cpl. Kim Hill thought as she arrived.

Fridell is used to resistance. But she has a different approach — a science-based one that explains that every human has subconscious biases that affect their perceptions. She's not aiming to change people who admit to being sexist or racist. Most police don't fit into that category anyway. Instead, she homes in on the "implicit" biases, which go far beyond race.

People of all races assume that men are more violent than women, Fridell says, citing academic studies. They link African-Americans with aggression. Even black people do this. And there are unconscious stereotypes, both positive and negative, regarding religion, socio-economic status and sexual orientation.

The key, she says, is recognizing biases, then learning how to manage them.

"It makes you think again about how you may have treated a situation or may have dealt with a particular group," said Sanford police Chief Cecil Smith, who recently went through a version of Fridell's training.

The U.S. Department of Justice thinks this is so important, Fridell's received $1 million to teach with Anna Laszlo, who has 32 years of experience building law enforcement training curriculums, and retired Palo Alto police Lt. Sandra Brown. Two weeks ago, they trained law enforcement trainers who plan to take these lessons back. The group included two officers from the Tampa Police Department.

The trio peppered their presentation with catchy videos. Remember how everyone judged the frumpy-looking Susan Boyle who surprised the world with her beautiful voice on Britain's Got Talent? What about Money Train, where Woody Harrelson's character overlooks an elderly woman in his search for a subway pickpocket?

The trainers also cite studies with shocking results, and the group does a lot of role playing. The session is quick, even fun. But behind it all lies some tragic cases, proving that the stakes are high. All of the role-playing scenarios are based on fact.

One of the most infamous examples is the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, a black man who was killed by New York City police after they mistook him for a suspect. When he reached for his wallet for his identification, they assumed it was a gun. The officers fired 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo.

That illustrates the problem of "ambiguous stimuli." People are more likely to interpret a situation as dangerous when they are rushed or if they already believe the person is aggressive. The Diallo case had both factors.

"Whenever possible, officers should slow it down," Fridell said.

On the flip side, biases can also make officers under-vigilant and therefore unsafe. One role-playing scenario shows that officers are much more likely to find a gun on a male suspect than a female one. New police recruits usually let the female go.

"All people can kill you," Brown said. "Kids can kill you. Women can kill you."

The training made Tampa police Cpl. Hill reconsider some of her past practices. Hill's father is white, her mother is black. She grew up in both communities and, still, she wondered how people might interpret some of her police checks.

"What if what I think is being proactive is being stereotypical?" she asked.

It's always important for police to check out something that appears suspicious, she said, but officers have to be careful about why they are considering it suspicious in the first place.

"It's a fine line," she said. "You have to be very careful."

Last week, the Miami Herald reported that Miami Gardens police routinely stop and frisk poor, black residents, citing them for minor infractions sometimes as often as three times a day.

A fed-up convenience store owner posted surveillance cameras that caught police aggressively searching and arresting some of these citizens for trespassing when they had permission to be on the premises, according to the Herald.

In Tampa, some people complained about the massive influx of officers in predominantly black East Tampa in June 2010 as the agency searched for Dontae Morris, who was accused of shooting two officers. "This wouldn't be happening in the suburbs," one resident told a reporter.

Police Chief Jane Castor repeatedly got in front of cameras and asked for the community's help. And she made sure people knew that Morris was also accused of killing Derek Anderson, a black person, in order to build support.

Tampa police Officer Kris Babino, 33, also attended Fridell's training. As a white officer patrolling Sulphur Springs, he says he is constantly accused of being racist. To him, this kind of blanket statement is another form of bias.

"You're judging me like you supposedly were judged," he said.

That is a common occurrence, Fridell explains. One bad police action can cause a ripple effect in a family or community. People start generalizing that all police are unfair.

That is why it is especially important for all law enforcement to manage their biases, Fridell said, and do their best to act fairly.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at or (813) 226-3433.

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