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June 4th, 2020

Unconscious Bias in Law Enforcement: A Way Forward




The death of George Floyd has rocked the nation and has millions asking the same questions over and over: why does this keep happening? Does bias play a role in law enforcement more than other professions? How do we build and strengthen trust between law enforcement professionals and the communities they serve?

The answer may lie in bias, specifically unconscious bias – social stereotypes formed outside our conscious awareness about certain groups of people.

Unconscious bias affects us more than we know. Perhaps more than any other field, law enforcement faces a tremendous amount of pressure when it comes to unconscious bias. Across every level of police work --federal, state, and local -- officers and support teams are faced with critical, split-second decisions that can literally mean the difference between life and death. And the role of unconscious feelings toward different groups of people plays a major role in making those decisions.

"In law enforcement, we want to make sure that officers have the best possible training and information to make the most informed decisions," says Kerry Mensior, a 30-year law enforcement veteran and communication mastery trainer. "Unconscious bias is one of those elements that weigh into decision-making, but you don't know of its existence because of its imperceptible nature."

"Decision-making typically falls into two categories in law enforcement," Mensior continues. "First, there are conscious choices, dictated by the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for helping us make good, logical decisions, and then there is our reptilian, lizard brain, where we make instinctual decisions."

It is the reptilian part of our brain, where our primitive survival instincts such as aggression and fear -- i.e., "flight or fight" -- reside, and when combined with unconscious biases, can cause potential harm. When you are unaware of your own biases --or that they even exist, for that matter --it leads to very poor decision-making. On the other hand, Mensior says, "if you know what your unconscious biases are, it can enable more informed decision-making."

"Know Thyself"

"Our brain processes millions of pieces of information daily, and what happens in times of crisis when we see these images repeat can lead to creating bias," says Carlecia Wright, VP of business development at BiasSync. "We saw it after 9/11, and we are seeing this now in the time of COVID-19, as xenophobia and microaggressions are forming toward certain populations as a result of the pandemic," Wright says.

That's why it's important that law enforcement agents on the front lines, seeing the impact of crime and crisis firsthand, continue to see their communities equitably. It is critical for first responders not to let repeated images or experiences they are having, shape biases.

Plato is credited with coining the simple maxim, "know thyself," and those two words are critically important to be aware of -- and understand -- when it comes to our own unconscious biases. Self-awareness is a big first step toward recognizing and addressing those prejudices.

Looking inward may represent a challenge but overcoming unconscious bias means recognizing that these deep-seated feelings not only start at a very young age, but are formed by the images we see and are reinforced by seeing those same (or similar) images repeatedly. This makes bias assessment and training critical for law enforcement – and not just once, but on an ongoing basis, as bias can form and grow over time.

Checking the Box

"Law enforcement officials are mandated to undertake training in a number of areas --from weapons training to diversity, to sexual harassment, to domestic violence. However, bias training at the local and federal level is sometimes mandated, but often in such a way that it is simply another box to check," says Mensior. "What we should be looking for is the effectiveness of the training—not only if the box was checked—but how."

Bias training has not always been a part of the orientation process in law enforcement. The impetus to start including it began about three years ago, when law enforcement officials began looking at procedural justice --how the citizen is treated throughout the justice system.

It begins with the patrol officer on the street, who is the face of law enforcement," Mensior says. From the moment a police officer stops a suspect to whatever next steps follow -- whether they issue a ticket, detain the suspect, or there's an investigation, a warrant or an arrest -- the patrol officer is the constant. Being able to address every situation with the same assumptions, and treating every person in the same regard, is key to building a great community.

Addressing one's biases -- unconscious or not -- is critical to maintaining trust with the community. "Law enforcement agents are in a position where unconscious bias matters," BiasSync's Wright says. "But it can't just be about awareness. It also has to be about a willingness to understand that bias and change it."

Operating from a Good Place

Having unconscious biases does not necessarily make you a bad person or mean that you cannot be a fair advocate. But understanding that our brains are machines that work automatically and that we all hold certain biases, makes us more open-minded to what we should be doing and the decisions we are making.

"We always want to assume people are operating from a good place," says Michele Ruiz, Co-founder and CEO, BiasSync. "The outliers in a police department represent a small, miniscule percentage. Typically, any law enforcement agency is comprised of good people who believe they are good people who are fair, make good decisions, and promote team members."

However, unconscious bias can affect even the best officers. Confronting it head-on, and not sweeping the bias under the rug, is crucial to help overcome these biases.

A Way Forward

Unconscious bias is at the root of many civil lawsuits against police departments around race, age, and gender. Understanding your agency's level of unconscious bias can help you better understand areas that continue to be a concern and work toward mitigating those biases.

BiasSync is creating simple, portable, effective solutions that help agencies easily understand their own unconscious biases with specific assessments designed specifically for law enforcement. These assessments not only look at people's biases, but also take into consideration important factors such as empathy and open-mindedness – attributes that psychologists' credit as signs of a willingness to change.

"We are in unique times, where demand for change is being met with greater enforcement. We need to assess bias in law enforcement while training in an effort to create change. That's what I love about BiasSync," says Mensior. "BiasSync is an affordable, science-based solution that can help an organization understand the prevalence of bias, without requiring departments to pull officers out of the field to meet state or federal training mandates. Officers can undergo training while on-duty, at their stations – or even in their squad car if they have the right equipment. It's a super simple, effective, and portable solution that can start relieving training pressures, make a difference, and concentrate attention in other areas where force members are also needed in serving the public."

Measuring change does not come through one assessment. Rather, ongoing assessments can help determine whether the training is effective. One assessment "can challenge the 'I am a good person' belief," Ruiz says. "But ongoing evaluations can help ensure a way forward -- proof that people are making real progress."

Training to understand and mitigate bias is important for public service agencies. "It supports mandate issues, allows you to take care of your people, and can help you understand where growth needs to happen," says Mensior. But unconscious bias is not just a law enforcement issue. It is a general population issue.

Addressing unconscious bias challenges helps create an environment where people are receptive to learning -- and the best learning environments are those that are not confrontational. "Offering results and feedback in a safe, confidential, non-confrontational manner gives law enforcement managers a way to manage their own data proactively, while also providing insight into a potential blind spot that may exist in their agency," says Ruiz. "The ability to uncover the unknown and the unseen is hugely important – especially in law enforcement. You can't teach people to erase their biases," she adds. "But you can make them aware of what their biases are and about the behaviors and decisions that we should be taking to mitigate their impact."

Watch the video webinar and learn how to mitigate unconscious bias within law enforcement. Visit:

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