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How much bias is too much to become a police officer? Experts fear policing law might backfire

An ambitious new law in California taking aim at potential biases of prospective officers has raised questions and concerns among police officers and experts who fear that if implemented inadequately, the law could undermine its own mission to change policing and culture of law enforcement.



a person holding a sign: A billboard in the town of Marysville, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2020. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post/file)


© Melina Mara/The Washington Post
A billboard in the town of Marysville, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2020. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post/file)

The law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 30, will expand the present screening requirements by mandating all law enforcement agencies to conduct mental evaluations of peace officer candidates to identify both implicit and explicit biases against race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation in order to exclude unfit recruits.

While experts, police unions and lawmakers agree on the value of identifying whether those who aspire to become officers carry considerable degrees of biases, it is the lack of clarity on what tools and measures will be used to look for implicit biases that is raising concerns and prompting questions.

“If police departments start to reject applicants because they have implicit biases there will be no one left to hire,” said Laurie Fridell, professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida and founder of the Fair and Impartial Policing program, one of the most popular implicit bias awareness trainings in the country.

Under the new law, the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) will review and develop new regulations and screening materials to identify these potential explicit and implicit biases. It will be up to each agency in the state to determine how to administrate them.

POST information officer Meagan Catafi would not say whether implicit bias tests will be part of the new screenings, arguing “it is too premature at this point to know what will be assessed and used in our materials.”

Catafi said POST will be working with psychologists and law enforcement experts to incorporate these new required items to the current psychological screening manual and have until January 2022 to complete the process.

The law comes amid a moment of social upheaval where police departments across the country are facing scrutiny and increasing calls for accountability over cases of slayings of unarmed civilians and excessive use of force that predominantly affects minorities.

This has prompted many agencies to ramp up efforts to identify racist and other discriminatory beliefs that could lead to destructive behavior, mostly by incorporating bias, diversity and inclusion training programs for active officers.

None of the experts interviewed by The Washington Post claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases — those that people are unwilling or unable to identify — as a hiring standard. All of them, however, are either wary of such approach or advice against it.

“This is a tough one. What do you do if someone tests positive for racism?” Do you train them again? Do you fire them? There are a lot of unknowns about how this

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