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Implicit Bias Training for Police May Help, but It's Not Enough

If we're not confronting the ways that police culture or the criminal justice system or media representations are biased against certain groups, awareness of implicit biases will do little to prevent racial bias in policing or society more broadly.
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"What can the United States do to improve police accountability?" asks a recently launched Q & A series from The Atlantic. In light of major police departments, including those in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and New York City, announcing comprehensive reform platforms in response to calls for better policing nationwide, the question remains how many of these proposed reforms are backed up by evidence of their efficacy.

Implicit bias training, the new favorite reform effort, is one of the least investigated of those proposals. The goal of these trainings is simple: to make police officers aware of their automatic, nonconscious stereotypes, such as the stereotype that all young Black men are criminals, in order to overcome these biases, improving community relations and policing efficacy.

While an entire industry has sprung up around implementing implicit bias training in police stations and businesses across the United States, there's little evidence to suggest that these trainings, especially on their own, will have any effect at all, let alone a positive one. Mandatory diversity trainings can lead to backlash effects that increase, rather than decrease, bias and sour participants on diversity as a goal. In other words, the belief that these one-off trainings are likely to have wide-sweeping effects on racial bias in policing is largely unsupported by research on diversity trainings more broadly.

Implicit bias trainings, which seem to focus on raising awareness of nonconscious or implicit biases, often do so without situating those biases alongside explicit biases, systemic or institutional biases, and other issues that are likely to swamp any effects of implicit bias awareness-raising. In other words, if we're not confronting the ways that police culture or the criminal justice system or media representations are biased against certain groups, awareness of implicit biases will do little to prevent racial bias in policing or society more broadly.

Many researchers who study implicit bias for a living, including the creators of the primary implicit bias measure, the Implicit Association Test (IAT), caution against seeing implicit bias as the newest one-size-fits-all approach to solving issues of bias and diversity. These researchers argue that implicit bias is helpful to the extent that it adds to our toolkit for understanding how bias operates, but research has not progressed to the point of suggesting concrete, long-term ways to eradicate these biases. In other words, we must remember that implicit bias training is not able to de-bias participants, no matter how well-meaning they are. After decades of research, we still don't really know how to get rid of these biases, especially biases like implicit racial and gender biases, given that they, and the stereotypes that maintain them, are so pervasive.

While not much is known about how to de-bias people, a lot more is known about how to protect against bias. Here awareness matters, so teaching people about implicit bias can help, but what matters more is creating policies and procedures where decision-makers can check their biases and insulate against them. The National Center for State Courts gets it right, publishing a report on strategies to reduce the influence of implicit bias that focuses on inoculating against bias rather than de-biasing. Their strategies focus on changing policies and procedures in courtrooms that create conditions where bias is less likely to have an influence or can be stopped more easily.

In the policing context, we can see a comprehensive approach to policing reform that seems to take this multi-pronged approach to heart in Campaign Zero's 10-point platform for police reform. While they advocate for implicit bias training, they see the need for systemic changes to policing that go beyond simple awareness-raising. They call for an end to institutional practices that exacerbate biases, like broken windows policing, and they call for more oversight, increased training, and more accountability in the use of force. These types of reforms acknowledge the role of institutional or systemic biases, biases that if fixed, are much more likely to reduce racial disparities than any individualized attempts at de-biasing can hope to.

So while a one-off implicit bias training may help in the rare case, it is not enough to repair community relations and correct for the more problematic institutional biases that plague police departments across the country. We should let go of the naïve hope that teaching people about implicit bias is finally the easy fix we've been looking for when it comes to diversity and disparity. Instead, we must embrace the complicated and messy reality with a thoughtful multi-pronged approach focused more on fixing a broken system and less on fixing broken individuals.