Florida police need better bias training | Editorial
State program is “an excuse to racially profile,” one expert said.
Experts who reviewed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's discriminatory traffic stop training for the Times said some of the slides seemed to try to justify the need to heavily police communities of color.
Experts who reviewed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's discriminatory traffic stop training for the Times said some of the slides seemed to try to justify the need to heavily police communities of color. [ Florida Department of Law Enforcement ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 28, 2022

It’s no mystery why generations of Black and brown Americans have feared being stopped by police. That’s why racial bias training is key — providing officers the awareness to avoid racial profiling and other ham-handed tactics that often end in violence. But Florida’s training is stuck in the past, a Tampa Bay Times report shows, sometimes reinforcing the very behaviors that feed discriminatory policing. The state needs to update its training and better track police encounters across racial lines.

Thousands of law enforcement officers across Florida have taken state training about how to avoid discrimination, such as racial profiling, during traffic stops. But eight experts who reviewed the online training for the Times found that it failed to teach officers to understand bias. Instead, the program shifted blame for disparate ticketing from police onto people of color. It encouraged conduct that could lead to discriminatory policing. As the Times’ Albert Serna Jr. reported, the training does not even acknowledge that police pull over and ticket people of color more often.

This is a fantasy lens for conducting real-life training that’s intended to better protect the public and police officers alike. Across Florida, Black motorists have been more likely to get ticketed for seat belt violations, the American Civil Liberties Union found. They’ve also been more likely to be pulled over and cited here in Tampa Bay. Over-policing people of color can also endanger lives. A 2017 Times investigation found that police were almost four time as likely to shoot Black residents than whites and those shootings were more likely to stem from a traffic stop. These are all indefensible disparities and tragedies that bias training is meant to prevent.

Florida started requiring officers to complete training on discriminatory profiling more than two decades ago. But experts criticized the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s course, which is available online as a slideshow, as “embarrassingly simple,” outdated and “an excuse to racially profile.”

The slideshow told how traffic stops preceded “nearly every serious race riot in the United States” without providing details of police brutality that accompanied stops. It inaccurately described police interactions that led to riots in Miami and Los Angeles. It cited statistics from nearly 20 years ago that showed higher public confidence in police than is felt today. One slide implied that people of color may be ticketed more frequently because of their attitudes toward police.

The Times first started asking the department about the training in March. By July, some of the most problematic slides were removed. Training officials at FDLE did not agree to an interview. When asked why some slides were removed, an agency spokesman would not provide specifics, saying the Times could file a public records request for further responses.

The FDLE’s arrogance is as revealing as it is self-defeating. After all, substandard training imperils officers on the street. Training them to conduct stops that help de-escalate tensions enhances officer safety. That requires giving officers the skills this dangerous job requires. Nobody benefits from a quick course in racial insensitivity.

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Florida also needs to replicate other states in tracking the demographics of who police are stopping. St. Petersburg has historically kept the most comprehensive data in the region. Tampa recently created a dashboard to track traffic and bicycle tickets, which also showed disparities. But other agencies in Tampa Bay have resisted collecting more data, insisting that racial profiling isn’t a problem here.

If it’s not a problem, let the data prove it. After all, thousands took to the streets across the bay area after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020. The public deserves to know how their officers are trained — and whether that training is resulting in disproportionate treatment of minorities. Because who’s really buying that policing is color-blind?

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.