A WARNING ABOUT UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TRAINING FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT
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The most recent “fad” training for law enforcement is Unconscious Bias Training (UBT). The premise is that police officers, regardless of race or ethnicity, have an unconscious bias toward groups that differ from their identified group, thereby unconsciously discriminating against others. The statement is broad and is a dangerous assumption, lacking evidence of scientific merit. Yet, UBT may reshape law enforcement, under the false assumption that unconscious bias is responsible for current law enforcement social issues. W hat is Unconscious Bias? The hypothesis is unconscious (or implicit) biases are learned stereotypes that are au- tomatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and able to influence behavior (Noon, 2018). The assumption implies that police officers may have au- tomatic, deeply ingrained racial biases that discriminate against people who differ from them. In social psychology, there is an assumption that law enforcement officers must change how they police because this unconscious racial bias can result in discrimi- natory practices. Unfortunately, agencies are subscribing to social- political pressure to advance this concept into policing while there is no valid or reliable research to support this proposition. What is Unconscious Bias Training? UBT programs are de- signed "… to expose people to their unconscious biases, provid- ing tools to adjust automatic patterns of thinking, and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviors." (Fiarman, 2016).
The training usually has three stages: 1. Participants take a pretest to assess baseline implicit bias levels (typically with the IAT/Race). 2. They complete the unconscious bias training task discussing their unconscious bias. 3. They take a posttest to re-evaluate bias levels after training. There are pitfalls law enforcement executives should con- sidering before subscribing to Unconscious Bias Training. Firstly, the IAT test is a psychometric instrument designed to measure behaviors and thoughts of a psychological nature, much like pre-employment psychological tests; therefore, the IAT may be considered a medical file. If it is shared among others and is discussed openly during training, there is a clear violation of an individual's privacy. If the IAT is not treated as a medical record, it may be subject to public records disclosure or subpoena and may become part of a training or employment record or lawsuit. The employee can be assigned a career-damaging scarlet letter without just cause, even with a report that the employee “has a slight preference to his own race” response. Secondly, there could be legal liabilities concerning union contracts, police officer bill of rights violations, and EEOC issues because the agency examines an employee's "unconscious psychological bias", and the results may create unfavorable, inaccurate, and discriminatory consequences for the employee, and later the agency. The psychological assessment is absent a justified purpose of assessing the employee other than calling it training, with the assumption that all people harbor unconscious bias, which is, ironically, biased. Legal issues can stem from public court actions demanding the retention of these records to be used in civil suits. Thirdly, the IAT has questionable reliability and validity. It is up to the trainer to interpret the meaning of the results, which is subjective. Tests must be reliable and must measure what it is intended to measure. Unfortunately, the IAT fails to meet this goal. If the same person takes the test twice, there is a good probability that the results will be different each time. Godhill (2017), said "Four separate meta-analyses came out, all suggest- ing that the IAT is a weak predictor of discriminating behavior." Harvard University (2020) said, "…the IAT shows biases that are not necessarily endorsed, and that may even be contradictory to what one consciously believes". The American Bar Associa- tion (2020), Implicit Bias Taskforce noted on their web page, "…a variety of factors may influence your IAT performance. The score is provided for entertainment purposes only". Texas A&M
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References American Bar Association. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/ groups/litigation/initiatives/task-force-implicit-bias/implicit-bias-test/ Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or fabulous? Monitor on Psychology , 39(7). http://www.apa. org/monitor/2008/07-08/psychometric Fiarman, S. E. (2016). Unconscious bias: When good intentions aren't enough. Educational Leadership , 74(3), 10–15. Goldhill, O. (2017). The world is relying on a flawed psychological test to fight racism. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1144504/the-world-is-relying-on-a- flawed-psychological-test-to-fight-racism/ Harvard University. (n.d.). https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/faqs.html#faq3 Noon, M. (2018). Pointless diversity training: Unconscious bias, new racism and agency. Work, Employment and Society , 32, 198–209 doi:10.1177/0950017017719841
University psychologist Hart Blanton, Ph.D., worries that the "IAT has reached fad status among researchers without the proper psychometric assessments to warrant its current uses in the public domain" (Azar, 2008). An agency must determine if they want to implement a weak program that may not work, and if it does, it may not produce accurate results, but will be used to make policy changes. Lastly, suppose the IBT trainer collects the IAT data results for future research, much like Project Implicit at Harvard Univer- sity. In that case, the inaccuracies and inferences can have a det- rimental effect on the law enforcement profession, building the false hypothesis that police officers are racially biased regardless of their race or ethnicity. While there is a need for continuing education, training, and awareness of current issues affecting law enforcement, IBT train- ing does not appear to be the appropriate solution. The science is weak and is not defendable in the scientific or legal commu- nity. This will create animosity and will inaccurately label officers of all races, ethnicities, and the agencies. Training considerations should not be based on the conscious assumptions that IBT training will satisfy any more than a political goal.
About the Author: W. Patrick Kenny is a graduate of the FBINA class 237, and a rep for the Florida FBINAA. A recently retired (Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, FL) law enforcement professional with 39 years of service. He has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a licensed therapist consulting and providing psychological assistance to first responders in South Florida.
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