Bias: Implicit, Explicit, & Illicit

Without trust, no relationship can prosper

By Jim Glennon  |   Oct 13, 2016
Photo Courtesy St. Louis Police Foundation

Currently, we find ourselves lacking trust between segments of the black community and the police. It is a daily headline. A political issue. An agenda for many.

Outside of all the noise we have a real issue that desperately needs fixing. That issue: The belief that this country’s police officers are unduly suspect of African Americans and use force against them at an alarming rate disproportionate to the population.

The problem is a complicated one. But in today’s society, the media and our politicians dislike complicated so we must simplify. It can’t be two-sided and never multi-sided. So they look for an unsympathetic antagonist and singular causations that satisfy simplistic solutions.

In this scenario, the antagonists are the cops and the single causation being championed, virtually uncontested, is implicit bias of a racial nature.

This belief and the “buzz-phrase” is being promoted by everyone from politicians to pundits to actors to Ph.Ds. and across media outlets. Seems as though suddenly everyone is an expert on implicit bias and they are demanding that something be done.

The Implicit Bias Theory

Many believe the recent study of implicit bias to be groundbreaking. Problem is, it isn’t. Awareness of unconscious bias is as old as the understanding of psychology itself.

To begin: Implicit bias is simply a preconceived belief about people, places, and things that are outside of the conscious awareness of that person.

The argument today is that these implicit biases harbored by police officers, as well as their agencies, are of a racial nature. It’s those biases that cause officers to view many African-Americans as criminals, confront them illegally, treat them poorly, and sometimes overreact during force encounters.

Hence the government is demanding action. Training has been initiated, departments are making their officers attend, and police around the country are fuming at the insinuation they are racist.

Real or “Junk-Science”?

While one side believes that the racial implicit bias theory is true, others, many of whom I respect, believe it’s “junk-science”: A made up, incalculable and immeasurable phenomenon, designed to be a solution for a non-problem.

I’m no expert but I’ve given the topic some thought. I studied psychology as an undergrad and have written a book about communication. The unconscious/conscious relationship has fascinated me for more than 20 years. So I can see both sides of the argument and I agree with each of them to some extent.

We need to start at the beginning and not jump to someone else’s conclusion, no matter who they are or what their level of education.

One of the biggest problems with the implicit bias theory is in the misunderstanding of the word bias. In particular, we must understand how bias manifests itself in the relationship between the police and the community they are sworn to protect.

The biggest problem is that bias is often confused with racism. Sometimes with prejudice. Either way, the word conjures visions of the worst, those who throughout history have overtly displayed explicit contempt for others: the KKK, neo-Nazis, and so forth.

Today, virtually all in law enforcement exhibit no inappropriate explicit bias towards anyone. If they did, they’d be out of a job.

That being said, essentially all in law enforcement do hold implicit biases: preconceptions that reside in the unconscious. And it’s those implicit biases that need addressing.

Let’s begin by removing the stigma associated with the word bias.

The promoted theory is that police officers—particularly, but not exclusively, white police officers—behave malevolently towards minorities without conscious thought and outside of their awareness because they have negative and unjustifiable implicit biases against African-Americans.

Reality check: Everyone has explicit biases. That doesn’t mean any of them are bad. I have explicit biases for the Cubs, The Blackhawks, a great steak and sushi, certain types of music, my family, my profession, etc.

As for implicit biases we all have those too. Your brain is designed to build them, house them, and use them. In fact, Harvard researcher Mahzarin Banaji, one of the most important thinkers on this topic, calls the brain a “difference-seeking machine.” It’s what the brain evolved to do.

So now that we understand what bias is, let’s take the stigma off of the word “implicit.”

Training: Implicit v. Illicit

Bias—or, the prejudging of people, places, and things—is a natural by-product of our survival mechanism. Some will say it isn’t, but that’s nonsense. We are programmed to evaluate and determine things about others constantly, even before the conscious mind catches up. Real-life experience and academic research converge on this point: these quick assessments are most often startlingly accurate.

So generally, there’s nothing wrong—and in fact there are so many things right—about our implicit biases.

Again, the implicit is fine. It’s the illicit that needs corralling.

Since our biases affect subsequent decisions and actions, we as police officers need examine how much impact they have on our conscious assessment of others. We must consciously consider whether our implicit biases are based on reality and useful to us or are illicit and therefore maladaptive in nature. Especially when it comes to people who look and think differently than ourselves.

Our unconscious illicit implicit biases unquestionably affect everything, from our assessment and valuation of a person to our determination of danger and even our force options.

So we should all make an assessment of our own individual belief systems. Especially when it comes to common markers, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

The process is simple really. Ask yourself how you feel about people belonging to a particular group. Then evaluate whether those beliefs are negative in nature. If they are, do some self-examination about those beliefs and assess whether you globalize and treat people with less respect based on those views.

Remind yourself—and here is the important part—to recognize people—all people, regardless of perceived differences—as individuals worthy of your respect. People may be part of a group, but that doesn’t mean they are lost in a lock-step collective. There’s often more difference between people with in a group than between groups of people.

For example, I’m definitely more conservative than liberal. When I look at the liberal platform I find myself in disagreement. But when I talk to most liberals I often find myself in agreement on some subjects. I also realize that, like conservatives, they all don’t think and believe in every issue the exact same way. The media might like to make it seem like conservatives and liberal all think alike. But we don’t.

The Racial Component

Today for the community and law enforcement the hot-button issue is race.

Do white police officers—and now even black police officers infected by the systemic and institutional racism of their agencies—innately look at black men as de facto criminals, violent and therefore dangerous?

If it’s implicit, the theory goes, officers might not even know they are doing it.

There is some truth to this. But it is totally dependent on the individual officer, their day-to-day exposure to crime and criminals, and the belief systems they have. To paint a collective broad brush over 750,000 cops and scream implicit racial bias is flat our wrong!

Besides self-assessment and recognition, officers also desperately need to educate themselves in recognizing true reasonable suspicion and then learn how to articulate that recognition.

Does race ever have anything to do with the establishment of reasonable suspicion? Of course.

Why?

Because everything matters: time of day, who they are with, what is their age and gender, type of car, their clothing, lack of eye contact, fidgety hands, where they are, etc.

Everything matters, within the context of the immediate situation. Reading people, understanding what is out of place and how to evaluate that, is an unconscious process. The best cops, however, do it consciously.

We all get those gut feelings. Where we have an instant sensation about someone or something. What we need to do is hone those skills in the awareness of our conscious. Determine if there is true justification based on the immediacy of the situation.

We lack this understanding in law enforcement and almost never actually train in it. The best communications training addresses this, allows for conversation, gives real-life examples and absolutely encourages examination in the classroom.

Finally, police officers desperately need to be able to articulate why their attention was drawn to the person. Sometimes the race may actually be an important factor. Sometimes it isn’t. The same can be said of any physical attribute: age, gender, clothing, and so on—and all of it in the context of the situation at hand.

Unquestionably we have people who shouldn’t be in law enforcement. Some are racist, some are sociopathic. Some are just emotionally unfit. But those people are a truly small minority.

Conclusion

We in law enforcement need to embrace the reality and practicality of bias. We need to accept, without apology, that we are all biased. Sometimes that bias is useful. Sometimes it’s maladaptive. By accepting this we are better suited to articulate what it is we see and feel. We are better suited to control subversive subconscious thoughts. We are more likely to engage with others simply as people who have value.

This is how we come together, and it’s also, coincidentally, how good police work gets done.

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Jim Glennon
Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is the owner and lead instructor for Calibre Press. He is a third-generation LEO, retired from the Lombard, Ill. PD after 29 years of service. Rising to the rank of lieutenant, he commanded both patrol and the Investigations Unit. In 1998, he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. He has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Law Enforcement Justice Administration, is the author of the book Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement.