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Explicit Danger

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Explicit Danger

Training cops that they’re acting on “implicit biases” that need to be exposed and overcome can lead to severe mental strain. August 29, 2019
New York
Politics and law
Public safety

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made “implicit-bias training” a key initiative of his administration. Based on the principle that, as he says, “we as human beings all come with biases that we have to overcome,” implicit-bias training—which has already been rolled out for tens of thousands of municipal employees across the NYPD and Department of Education—is meant to counterprogram the racist responses that supposedly are wired into our brains.

Since the firing of Daniel Pantaleo—the police officer accused of using a prohibited chokehold in arresting Eric Garner, thus causing his death—Mayor de Blasio has stressed the extent to which implicit-bias training has transformed the police department. In five media interviews the day Pantaleo was fired, de Blasio cited this training as key to changes within the NYPD, and went on to say that its national implementation “can end this horrible history that’s holding us back and actually start to bring police and community closer together.” But the actual content of police implicit-bias training—not to mention the weak theory behind it—is not only largely ineffective; it also indoctrinates patrol officers in a pattern of response that contradicts common sense.

The NYPD has assigned a multimillion-dollar contract to Fair & Impartial Policing, a Florida-based consultancy that bills itself as the “#1 provider of implicit-bias-awareness training for law enforcement in North America.” The firm explains that its training is “about how the mind works,” and that “implicit biases can impact well-intentioned individuals outside their conscious awareness.” By exposing subjects to “counter-stereotyping,” it is possible to “override automatic (discrimination-promoting) associations and biases.”

The science behind implicit bias is weak. Based on response-time studies known as “implicit-association tests” (IAT), the theory of implicit bias is not replicable and does not predict real-world behavioral discrimination. Even the developers of the IAT now concede that it cannot measure or predict prejudice or racist behavior. Furthermore, the theory does not satisfy the “falsifiability” standard of scientific claims, insofar that it is semantically impossible to deny the idea that beliefs hidden below the level of consciousness drive behavior—any opposition can be interpreted as defensiveness.

Translating the theory of implicit bias to a classroom setting has predictably absurd results. Two NYPD officers who underwent the training on separate occasions describe an eight-hour seminar based on a PowerPoint presentation. “It was basically a formality, pretty dry,” said an officer with more than a decade of patrol experience. “Worst training I have ever had,” reports a sergeant with 15 years on the job. The officers said that the lecture consisted largely of discussions about stereotypes and expectations that they might have about people they encounter. Susan Boyle, the singer whose first appearance on Britain’s Got Talent went viral on social media, was cited as a significant example of how first impressions can be misleading; Buck Angel, a transgender porn star whose hypermasculine presentation belies his female genitalia, was another case demonstrating that appearances can be deceiving.

These examples are trivial, but more serious was a video of a middle-aged white man who murdered an unsuspecting policeman with a carbine during a routine traffic stop. The effective lesson the trainers imparted, according to the NYPD officer, was “to treat everyone like they are going to kill you.” Indeed, Fair & Impartial Policing training materials contend that “implicit bias might lead an officer to be consistently ‘over vigilant’ with males and low-income individuals and ‘under vigilant’ with female subjects or people of means.” The premise is that an officer should approach everyone with the same assumption of threat level. But police develop instincts about how to do their jobs based on long experience. “If I see an old lady crossing the street,” says an NYPD sergeant, “I will have a different expectation than if I see a tinted-out Nissan Maxima with Pennsylvania plates driving around a high-crime area at midnight.” 

And the emphasis on applying equal vigilance to all encounters, one supposes, could encourage “hypervigilance,” itself the subject of special police training, implicated as a cause of excessive force as well as a primary source of mental strain and burnout for cops. While hypervigilance sounds positive in the context of public safety, experts in police training have warned against it for decades. The sense that one’s life is in constant danger, that every interaction could turn lethal, is associated with PTSD, panic disorder, reflexive shooting, and even suicide. The recent spate of NYPD suicides has prompted the department to order all officers to undergo a one-hour online “Shield of Resilience” suicide-prevention course. The course, designed by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, focuses on stress management, and specifically cautions against hypervigilance, explaining that “hypervigilance is defined as being constantly tense and on-guard; this can lead to serious health problems.”

Mayor de Blasio has promoted intrinsic-bias training for political reasons and because it allows him to promote the progressive idea that racism explains most of what is wrong in American society. But the misguided theory of intrinsic bias may be counter-indicated when it comes to police work, serving to make cops’ jobs even harder than they are already are.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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