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Vermont Police Academy Teaches New Cops to Overcome Racial Biases 

Local Matters

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T.J. Anderson had some blunt words last week for the 24 cadets in her class who’d just begun their training to become Vermont police officers: There’s a bigot hiding in your brain, she told them, and if you want to become better cops and make it home alive at the end of each shift, you need to recognize and overcome it.

Anderson, who is the training and curriculum development coordinator at the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council in Pittsford, wasn’t being accusatory — just scientific about the way the human brain processes information.

“You’re not alone in this,” Anderson assured the new recruits, who were in their second week at the police academy. “We all have biases. We may not recognize them, but they’re there. To be human is to have biases.”

Hers is more than a theory. Law-enforcement agencies around the country have come under increased criticism for treating people of color and other minorities — including homeless people — more harshly than whites. Just last week, a federal judge struck down as unconstitutional the New York City police department’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, which critics had long complained disproportionately targeted young black and Latino men.

Similar criticism has been leveled at Vermont’s law-enforcement agencies. In April 2012, a citizen group called Uncommon Alliance worked with four local police chiefs — from the Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and University of Vermont police departments — to release the results of a voluntary two-year study of 26,000 traffic stops in Chittenden County. The data revealed “statistically significant disparities” between the way black and Latino drivers were treated compared to white drivers. The former were subjected to more frequent stops and searches of their vehicles, stiffer penalties and higher arrest rates.

Such prejudices aren’t necessarily deliberate or conscious, Anderson explained in her two-hour Fair and Impartial Policing course that since 2012 has been mandatory for all new police recruits in Vermont. The mental assessments we make of other people and the potential threat they pose may happen in milliseconds. In most professions, such split-second decision-making won’t make the difference between life and death, Anderson told the 24 uniformed cadets — all of whom were white and all but five male. But cops, who have to decide in a heartbeat whether to draw their weapon and shoot, have the additional burden of understanding how their own unconscious biases can lead to really bad decisions.

Anderson began her lesson with an innocuous example from pop culture: a video of Susan Boyle’s April 2009 appearance on the English television show “Britain’s Got Talent.” When the talented Scottish singer first took the stage, many in the audience giggled at her frumpy appearance and thought it was a joke. But when Boyle wowed both audience and judges with a remarkable performance, she became an instant celebrity.

“We made all these opinions about her before she even opened her mouth. Do we do that on the road?” Anderson asked her students afterward. “Do civilians do that to us?”

“Yes, ma’am!” the class replied, in military-style unison.

Later, Anderson showed the class excerpts from a video game University of Chicago researcher Joshua Correll created to study racial bias in policing. In Correll’s game, criminal suspects, who are either black or white, flash on the screen, holding either a weapon or a harmless object. The player must decide as quickly as possible if the person is a threat and then shoot. Correll conceived of the concept after the death of Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant who was shot by NYPD cops 41 times before any of them realized the object in his hand wasn’t a gun.

Correll’s video game proved his theories: Police were more inclined to shoot an unarmed suspect who is black versus one who is white. (A later study proved Arab-looking suspects got similar treatment.) Equally important, Anderson told students, officers were slower to recognize a real threat from a white suspect than from a black one. Such trends held true regardless of whether the players were white or African American, cops or civilians.

Anderson then moved on to other types of latent bias, such as those based on gender, sexual orientation, disability and socioeconomic status. On the last, Anderson showed the class a series of photos of homeless people sleeping in doorways and park benches. She then asked them to jot down adjectives to describe those people.

Although some of the cadets offered words that got at the root causes of homelessness — “vet,” “divorced,” “battered” and “mentally ill” — many more offered negative terms, such as “depressed,” “lazy” “drug addicted” and “dirty.”

Such responses aren’t unique to cops, Anderson told the class afterward, but are indicative of the way many people react to homelessness. She cited a study, conducted by Susan Fiske at Princeton University, in which college students were given an MRI scan while looking at photos of people from varying economic means.

As Anderson explained, a part of the human brain “lights up” during an MRI whenever we recognize another human. But Fiske discovered that that part of the brain was less likely to light up when students looked at photos of homeless people than photos of people from higher income levels.

In other words, Anderson explained, “The students were seeing objects, not human beings. Can that affect the way you, as a police officer, respond to a homeless person?”

“Yes,” the class answered.

“If a homeless woman walks up to you and tells you someone stole her shopping cart, if everything she owns is in that shopping cart, is she a crime victim?” Anderson continues. “Should we investigate that crime?”

“Yes!” the class responded, in unison.

Anderson’s research-intensive approach to Fair and Impartial Policing is deliberate and reflects her scientific training. She earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology, with a minor in psychology, from the University of Vermont before becoming a full-time cop in 1990. After a decade with the Rutland City PD, Anderson was hired by the Vermont Police Academy to be its family violence training coordinator. Today, she also teaches courses on human trafficking, voyeurism, stalking and strangulation.

Anderson’s goal isn’t just to make her students more aware of latent biases, in themselves and other cops, but also to teach them how to counter those tendencies. One suggestion she offered is to slow down an interaction to allow the officer more time to absorb and process relevant information.

To demonstrate, she presented a scenario in which a police officer spots an inebriated man, who appears to be Native American, walking in front of his cruiser carrying a knife and approaching a group of children. Anderson then asked the students how they would respond to that situation.

After gathering their suggestions, Anderson showed the “cruiser cam” video from the actual confrontation, which occurred in Seattle in August 2010. In that incident, Seattle PD officer Ian Birk shot and killed John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver. Although Williams had a history of public intoxication, Anderson noted, he’d never been violent. The video revealed that Birk shot Williams just four seconds after ordering him to turn around and drop his weapon, though Birk never identified himself as a police officer. It turned out, Williams was deaf in one ear.

Another useful tool, according to Anderson: Social science research reveals that internal biases can be minimized simply by exposing people to more diversity in nonconfrontational situations. For cops, Anderson explained, that means going out into the community and talking to minorities of all kinds in schools, businesses and civic groups.

Reducing bias works both ways. The more the public is exposed to cops in nonconfrontational situations, she reminded her students, statistically the less likely they are to describe police using negative adjectives, such as “racist,” “sexist” and “power hungry.”

Due to an official police academy policy, none of the cadets was permitted to be quoted individually or speak to this reporter after class. But according to Richard Gauthier, executive director of the Criminal Justice Training Council, the response from Vermont field officers has been “immediate and overwhelmingly positive.”

Why is the class taught just two weeks into their training? Gauthier explained that it allows cadets to incorporate the lessons into all their practical exercises.

“We put it out there immediately but we don’t just drop it afterward,” he said. “The lessons are reinforced throughout the curriculum and stays throughout.”

Isn’t this class just a way to buffer law-enforcement agencies against lawsuits that allege bias?

“I hear that quite often,” Gauthier answered. “But to be really candid, I think that fear of liability is a secondary concern. The primary concern should be the level of service we give to people.”

Anderson’s science-based approach to this sensitive subject makes it easier for police to accept. “If you want to put a group of cops on the defensive, start blaming them for something,” said Gauthier. “You’ll negate your message and they’ll tune you out and not pay attention to anything else you say.”

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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