A Possible End to Racial Profiling?

USF Criminologist Lorie Fridell is implementing a grant-funded training program for police personnel. 


                                                                                                                                      photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 12, 2013) – The defensiveness is almost palpable when Lorie Fridell, a nationally-recognized expert on racial profiling, begins her workshops with law enforcement officers on fair and impartial policing.


Crossed arms and skeptical looks are spread around the room.


She faces this regularly as she implements her Fair and Impartial Policing (FIP) Training project in the USF Department of Criminology, with the support of more than $1 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice. But the science-based training she has pioneered arms Fridell with what she needs to stand confidently before them.


“They're expecting me to tell them to stop being prejudiced,” she says. “They've encountered that in other training sessions. Who wouldn't be offended by that message? Even being told that you need training feels like an accusation – especially for people who see themselves as well-intentioned and free of prejudices.


“The tension starts to lessen when I point out that all people have biases, including doctors, lawyers, teachers – all professions, all nationalities – everyone.”


Fridell, an associate professor with more than two decades of experience researching law enforcement, makes it clear that bias is normal to human functioning. “We categorize on sight the people we don't know and then attribute to them the stereotypes or generalizations associated with their group. It's how we order the universe.”


It's when unconscious biases shape behavior – in people's professional lives in particular – that problems can occur. And when it comes to policing, even more is at stake considering the great power law enforcement can hold over a person's life and freedom.


“I let the police know that the ‘racist' label has been overused and that I understand that the vast majority of police personnel are well-meaning and dedicated to serving all community members with fairness and dignity,” she said. “I share that I'm not out to blame them or point fingers. Then we can talk freely about human biases, how they might manifest in policing and how they can be dealt with.”


“Not your grandparents' prejudice”


Fridell explains that most people are working with “outdated” notions about how bias manifests in our society, and likes to quote Princeton scientist Susan Fiske who says, “Modern prejudice is not your grandparents' prejudice.” Therefore, she says, efforts to combat it must change as well.


Fridell has studied an extensive body of social-psychological research addressing human bias that contrasts “explicit bias” with “implicit bias” and that examines mechanisms for reducing and managing both.


“Early research on the psychology of bias found that prejudice was based on animus toward groups and that a person with prejudice was aware of it. Bias with these characteristics is now known as ‘explicit bias.' But bias today is less likely to manifest as explicit bias and more likely as ‘implicit' or ‘unconscious' bias. Implicit bias can impact our perceptions and our actions below consciousness, even in people who consciously hold non-prejudiced attitudes. They simply aren't aware that bias is impacting their interactions until it is brought to their attention, for instance through training.”


As an example, she points out that “considerable research has identified implicit bias linking racial minorities to crime and violence, even in people who test as non-prejudiced and who consciously reject racial and ethnic stereotypes.”


Police personnel are not immune. And biases are not based only on race and ethnicity.


“Whose story will the officer believe when there is a crash between the wealthy white male in the luxury car and the Hispanic male wearing jeans and driving the pick-up truck? Consider a group of young people standing together on a street corner. Are they male or female, African American, Hispanic or Caucasian, poor or middle class? What assumptions will the police make based on the demographics? Implicit bias can lead police to be hyper-vigilant or under-vigilant depending on the race, class or gender of a subject in an encounter.”


Understanding and managing bias through training


“The bad news is that bias remains widespread,” reports Fridell. “The good news comes from the large body of research that has identified how individuals can reduce their implicit biases, or, at least, manage their biases to ensure that they do not influence their behavior.


“It's possible to learn to implement ‘controlled' behavioral responses that override our automatic implicit biases. It simply takes motivation and information,” she said.


And that's where the FIP training program comes into play.


Fridell has developed five Fair and Impartial Policing curricula directed toward various levels of personnel such as academy recruits, patrol officers, first line supervisors and command staff. The course of study addresses biases such as those based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity. “These are the areas in which most of us have the most automatic and deeply ingrained attitudes,” she said.


Fridell developed this program with an expert curriculum designer, Anna Laszlo, and a curriculum design team made up of police executives, supervisors, officers, community stakeholders and academic experts. “Also part of the team were some of the top social psychologists from around the nation who conduct the research on human biases,” she added. Three of the curricula were developed pursuant to cooperative agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).


Police training based on the science of bias is starting to be recognized as state-of-the-art. Fridell reports that it has been highlighted in the periodicals and other documents of major law enforcement associations and referenced in court cases such as the recent NYPD Stop and Frisk holding. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice that investigates and intervenes with agencies suspected of engaging in unconstitutional policing, including biased policing, is recommending training for police on implicit biases. Entire states are adopting the FIP perspective, including Kansas, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and South Carolina, keeping Fridell and her training team busy.


“I'm happy to report that many of the most hostile and defensive police personnel walk out at the end of the training with a new way of thinking about bias in policing and with the motivation and skills to promote fair and impartial policing. The session evaluations are overwhelmingly positive and the word is getting around that it's worthwhile,” Fridell said. “I've had officers tell me this training has ‘opened their eyes,' and ‘really made them think,' and that the training is something they keep in the back of their minds every day now that they've been made aware of how biases manifest in even the best of us.”


For more information, go to http://www.fairandimpartialpolicing.com/ or contact Lorie Fridell at 813-974-6862 or lfridell@usf.edu. See her latest article on the topic in Translational Criminology.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.