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Implicit bias training may help reduce police-community tensions

We have written several times in the past year about the growing distrust between American communities and the police officers who work within them. This anger and distrust has been sparked, in large part, by the numerous fatal shootings of unarmed African-American men by white police officers. Many other examples of apparent racial profiling in traffic stops have been recorded and shared by the suspects and bystanders. Such incidents have occurred here in Wisconsin as well as other parts of the Midwest.

While some police departments are working to defend their public image by criticizing their critics, others are using these tragedies as learning opportunities to improve their police work. In fact, a growing number of police departments around the country are engaging in what's known as "implicit bias training" to better recognize and combat prejudices they may not have been aware of.

Every human being has some implicit biases, although most of us don't like to think that we do. And much of the time, we do not recognize what those biases are. Perhaps the only way these biases can be identified and overcome is through honest discussion and self-reflection. These seem to be common elements of implicit bias training.

Many law enforcement professionals have argued that police officers must rely on instinct (which includes bias) in order to quickly assess a situation and protect their own safety. But these same biases could actually have the opposite effect. According to a recent Washington Post article, some IBT sessions focus on real-life scenarios in which police were injured or killed because they made inaccurate assumptions about which individuals at a scene were dangerous. The article gave the example of failing to notice a woman carrying a gun because of the assumption that women aren't ever dangerous.

There may be no way to tell just how effective implicit bias training will be, but we have to believe that it will make a positive difference. Combating any problem starts by recognizing that there is a problem and being willing to address it.

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