Expanding officers’ awareness of their prejudices might seem an intuitive exercise. But a lack of standards for implicit-bias training—namely, what exactly courses should include and how to monitor their impact—means no one really knows how effective they actually are, even as they are adopted by more and more departments.
To make things even more confusing, debate also swirls around which tests to use to measure bias, the degree to which implicit biases are truly unconscious, and even the strength of the link between bias and behavior.
“Some of these trainings are based on wishful thinking and intuition,” said Patricia Devine, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin who runs a lab focused on prejudice. At least two national groups offer the trainings, and departments can and do also put together their own.
If agencies skip key steps, Devine said, like arming participants with concrete strategies for monitoring their own biases, they won’t work. “By doing this kind of training and not having standards for effectiveness ... you don’t know if somehow they left an ingredient out,” she said.
“The trainings have great potential, but they need to be tied to assessment,” said Phillip Goff, a City University of New York professor and the head of the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank based at the university that helps departments set up trainings. Assessments need to go well beyond feedback from participants, he said: They should include rigorous testing after classes finish to see if officers’ reactions, behavior, or perceptions were actually changed by the material. While the courses designed by his group include that testing, few others do, he added.
Correll, the Colorado researcher, described the risk of uneven standards another way. A training session could include all the right information, and create a basic awareness that bias exists, but still fall short of actually bringing officers across the threshold of acknowledging their own. And a program might look from the outside like it was succeeding, and perhaps even cause changes in officer behavior—but only in situations where they have time to think their actions through.
“That’s cool,” Correll said. “But when someone jumps out from behind the bushes and pulls something from his waistband, that’s not the way the brain is working.”
There’s an additional risk to the lack of standardization, he said: If government leaders and the public treat this first wave of courses as a referendum on whether bias can be mitigated through training, mediocre results from even some departments could fuel criticism of the courses, and doubts that bias reduction itself is a worthwhile pursuit.
Devine and others did sound hopeful notes, emphasizing that law-enforcement leadership with whom they’ve spoken recognize the urgency of the issue. And despite some initial defensiveness, Devine and others said, many officers seem to warm to the training for perhaps the same reason they were attracted to policing in the first place: because they genuinely value fairness.