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Chief Koval's Blog

The Challenges of Unconscious Bias

May 9, 2016 10:08 AM

This week's blog will begin with a story.  I will not be making any references as to when it occurred, which store was involved, which mall, or name any of the various affected parties of interest.  It's not the particulars of this specific case that matters so much; it is the teachable moment that this incident raises . . .

Several MPD Officers were dispatched to a food court reference a "man with a gun" call.  Dispatch advised responding officers that it was reported a man had a pistol tucked in his waistband. No one had been threatened nor was the man doing anything with the gun. (By the way, a mall is a private enterprise held open to public use.  The mall has the legal authority to ban firearms on its property so this is not an open-carry or CCW-permit story).

Officers were also provided with a subject description (Black male/clothing description provided) and this subject appeared to in the company of another individual (Black female/clothing description provided).  The complainant reported that just prior to calling, the male subject had been making people feel "uncomfortable" in the store and that this subject had been "posturing."  Apparently another store employee had actually seen what appeared to be a gun.   Subsequently, when pressed to further explain what made people feel "uncomfortable," one of the individuals noted that they believed the male to be a "pimp" as he was having a conversation about having "whores?"

The end of this story is that the male and female subject were contacted by officers.  As the context for our call was explained, the subjects were more than cooperative.  The "gun" turned out to be a black cell phone case attached to the male's belt, which had been covered up by his shirt.  When we pursued how in the world a supposition had been made about the male being a "pimp," it was apparently due to an overheard conversation at the make-up counter.  A part of the conversation was understood as the male subject stating to the female subject words to the effect of wanting her to have a different shade of lipstick from the "other girls."

WOW!  Faulty communication, lots of assumptions and stereotypical inferences combined for a "perfect storm" in one call.  Fortunately, no one was hurt or injured and the couple was more than gracious when it was explained why police were called and why we did a cursory pat-down for weapons.   An apology and an explanation was provided, of course.  But the public humiliation suffered and the diminishment of self-esteem is incalculable.   And now we have (yet) another reason for people of color to not trust their local police.

One of the reasons I bring this case to light is not to make attributions about the people who called.  We do not know them, we have no way of gauging how they were raised, how they were "taught," or what their life experiences are.  This could have been a case where well-intentioned people were literally concerned for their safety and that of others as the sole basis of their motivations for calling 9-1-1.  But somewhere along the way, some "unconscious bias" may have crept into their perceptions and subsequently influenced and impacted a police contact.

About eight years ago, MPD was one of the first police departments in the nation to delve into the now "red hot" topic of unconscious or "implicit" bias.  We entered into a conversation and joint explorations with University of Wisconsin Professor Patricia Devine, who is a member of the psychology department.  Devine has been a pioneer in focusing attention on questions concerning the relationship between explicit (overt racism) and implicit prejudice and how an examination of this can begin to explain (at least in part) why there are sometimes resistive tension(s) between majority and minority group members.  As police, it is critically important for us to better understand these obstacles as well if our hopes for more harmonious intergroup relationships are to be realized. (Another professor, Lorie Fridell, has also garnered national acclaim for her years of experience conducting research on law enforcement, including serving six years as the Director of Research at the Police Executive Forum (PERF) in Washington, D.C.).

In his bestselling book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell made the following observation:

"All of us have implicit biases to some degree.  This does not necessarily mean we will act in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner, only that our first "blink" sends us certain information.  Acknowledging and understanding this implicit response is critical to informed decision-making and is particularly critical to those whose decisions must embody fairness and justice."

Clearly, nowhere is the end-result more telling than when cops who make life-changing decisions are not trained or aware of these pervasive effects as we go about our duties and create records of arrests and prosecutions on an almost daily basis.  Should those bias elements be left unchecked,  the disparities of the criminal justice will continue to rise. In light of the sheer magnitude of what that could mean, MPD has been at the forefront for years talking and training on this topic.  In fact, one of the decisions I made had me tossing and turning because of this issue.  I had been contacted by the producers of  "The Daily Show."  They had heard about Madison's training in this domain and asked if we would be willing to be featured on one of their programs.  While I knew that this show was wildly popular with a younger demographic, I was reluctant to do it.  The Daily Show uses comedy/parody to both entertain and educate their viewers with topical interests.  My reluctance came because I was concerned that if a vitally important subject--implicit bias--were made into a "joke," would that lessen or diminish the very serious nature of the issue?  Would people find it in poor taste to do this? 

Ultimately, I took a calculated risk believing the producers of the show (and my sons, who watched the show religiously) when they indicated that they understood my position and shared the same concern(s).  As of this writing, there have been over 1.8 million "hits" and the Department still receives positive feedback from people who saw "The Daily Show" on October 1, 2015!  You can see it for yourself by clicking below or find it on YouTube.

Altogether, I have seen this training captured under a variety of monikers:  implicit bias, unconscious bias, and training held under the title of "fair and impartial policing."  There are common denominators that weave throughout the various approaches and here are a few:

1.  No one is immune from having some form(s) of bias.

2.  Biases are often implicit/unconscious and can alter decisions and outcomes without intending it.

3.  Biases are a "normal" course of the way we function as members of the human race.

4.  If the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system (i.e., police) allow biases and/or stereotypes to creep into the way we interact and make decisions about others, the result(s) could be cataclysmic.  (Unsafe/Unjust).

5.  All of us can learn skills to identify and manage our own personal biases.

6.  An officer's peers, supervisors, and command staff can learn to evaluate potentially biased behavior and call it out for remediation.

Everyone in the commissioned ranks of MPD have received some combination of pre-service, in-service, or specialized training(s) in unconscious bias and we frequently incorporate reflections and reviews of unconscious bias issues in our curriculum for both new and continuing officer education.  In fact, since 2011, we have a dedicated group of officers who have truly embraced the significance of this type of training and are now sharing their knowledge and talents both within the Department (as part of annual in-service trainings) or by taking their classes "on the road" to other police officers, social service providers, members of the legal community, and agencies that want their employees to have this invaluable exposure.  Hats off to UBG (Unconscious Bias Group)!

Getting back to my story, herein lies the challenge.  While it is well and good and appropriate that the police are getting this kind of training, there are still monumental problems when none of the folks that call into the 9-1-1 Center have had this probative experience!  When one stops to consider that the Department generally fields about 15,000 calls/month, and that less than 2% of those calls are self-initiated by the officers (i.e., most of our calls for service come from third party dispatch sources like witnesses, complainants, victims, etc.), calls like the story I shared demonstrates how the police are often vicariously sucked into the biases of those who activated a request for our assistance!  In a sense, we "inherit" the biases of those who call and must overcome the heightened tensions, then, of those contacted by the police.

This topic is gaining more traction as a staple in hiring, training, and assessment.  It's a concept that is well worth the time and the effort!  Should you like to try a sample on-line unconscious bias test, you can do so for free on a tool offered by Harvard (  You might be surprised at your results!

Posted by: Chief Koval

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