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Justice Department Training Coaches St. Louis Area Police On Countering Implicit Bias


Top commanders from four area law enforcement agencies along with a handful of community members are wrapping up two days of training in fair and impartial policing today. 

The training comes as part of the Justice Department’s collaborative review initiative and technical assistance in St. Louis County. Departments participating in the training include St. Louis County, St. Louis Metropolitan, Ferguson and the Missouri Highway Patrol.

COPS, or Community Oriented Policing Services, is staffed by experts in policing, but it does not have the power to file a court case. But it works with police departments to persuade them to improve police policies. In general, COPS stresses that its solutions are part of “a long-term strategy that identifies the issues within an agency that affect public trust and offers recommendations on how to improve the issue and enhance the relationship between the police and the community.”

Individuals involved in the training spoke with St. Louis Public Radio earlier this week, ahead of the two-day session that began Thursday. The training is the first of several planned programs on law enforcement strategies and best practices.      

Lori Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, is leading the session to help officers understand the concept of implicit bias in policing. 

Up until recently, Fridell said, when people talked about biased policing, they only talked about so-called explicit biases.

Credit University of South Florida
Lori Fridell

“A person with explicit bias knows it, owns it, meaning that person will tell you ‘I don’t like this group and let me tell you why’ and they’re unconcerned with any discriminatory behavior that would result,”  said Fridell. “Implicit bias can be occurring outside of an individual’s conscious awareness and it can occur even in individuals who at the conscious level reject biases, stereotypes and prejudice.”

To overcome resistance from law enforcement officials, Fridell said, “It is very important to make sure that they understand this is not just about police; people in all professions have biases.” 

As part of her training, Fridell asks law enforcement officials to invite community members to join them in this training. “I’ve asked them to (ask) individuals who are respected in their communities and who are willing, able and known to hold law enforcement to high standards,” she said. These community members “must be able to come to the table with law enforcement for a constructive discussion of a sensitive topic.”

Ron Davis, the COPS director, also encourages law enforcement officials to include community members in their training. 

“The purpose is for them to learn the issue of implicit bias and how implicit bias affects us all," said Davis. "No one is immune to it. We are all human beings, we all suffer from biases – most subconsciously.”

As for the community members invited to attend, Davis agreed that they have to be individuals who will hold law enforcement accountable.  “If you surround yourself with people who all agree with you, you’re only going to be as good as the idea that you have," he said. "Community policing requires that you engage a broad segment of the community – even those that disagree with you.”

Even though the Ferguson Police Department is under a so-called "pattern or practice" investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, officials may also participate in training through the collaborative reform initiative. The Civil Rights Division is also providing Ferguson officials with technical assistance.

Collaboration and technical assistance

While the Ferguson police department is under investigation as a result of the police shooting of Michael Brown, the county police department’s arrangement with the Department of Justice came as part of a voluntary request from Chief Jon Belmar for technical assistance.  

The review and assessment of mutually agreed issues with the county police is being conducted by the Washington-based Police Foundation, under a contract with the Justice Department’s COPS office. 

The county and the COPS office worked together to identify areas for review as part of the collaborative reform initiative.  “Now when we do the assessment… the findings are not collaborative, they are what they are – that is non-negotiable, “said Davis. 

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the initiative in September, he listed the areas that would receive special review. “Already, with the cooperation of St. Louis County leaders, we have identified priority areas for intensive review and technical assistance, including racial profiling; stops, searches and frisking; the handling of mass demonstrations by police officials; and law enforcement training both at the police academy and at the continuing professional level,” Holder said.

The entire process can take several years and even after the outside assessment team leaves, Davis said the lessons learned and the implementation of recommendations will continue. Tthe agencies should have "a road map for better practices, how to strengthen relations with the community, how to do assessment and it can be used not only for the areas that we collaboratively negotiated, but for any future challenges that may come up.” 

But, he added, “It’s still going to require training after we leave, it’s going to require oversight after we leave, it’s going to require day to day commitment, way past when the COPS office is gone.”