Social Studies

What We (Don’t) Know About Reducing Police Bias

The recent acquittal of Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop near St. Paul brought back into focus for many Minnesotans the frequency with which Black people in the United States are killed by the police. But why is it so common for officers to kill Black suspects? And what can police departments do to prevent or at least reduce these deaths in the future?

Dr. Eugene Borgida, Professor of Psychology and Law at UMN, gave a presentation in March 2017 to the Minnesota Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the current state of psychological science on implicit bias interventions—work that has direct implications for programs designed to reduce racial bias in policing. He has also been invited to participate in a panel on implicit bias for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the fall.

According to Dr. Borgida, certain psychological approaches show promise for reducing prejudice. These include contact with members of other groups—having friends from another group, having positive interactions with members of another group, having friends who have friends from another group, or sometimes even imagining a positive contact with a member of another group—and cooperative learning—being in an environment that requires cooperation with members of another group to achieve a common learning goal. Other interventions, especially those aimed specifically at reducing implicit bias, have shown short-term effects immediately after the intervention but no effects several hours to several days later.

More importantly for police departments, Dr. Borgida talked about existing police training programs, noting that “we know very little about the effectiveness over time of these training programs to reduce bias in police departments.” While recent research examines bias in shooting simulations and the effect of training programs on officers’ attitudes, no controlled studies have examined the effects of training programs on officers’ racial bias in the field or their involvement in shootings or other uses of force. Dr. Borgida emphasized the need for controlled studies of these programs to test whether and how they reduce bias or if some might instead backfire and increase officers’ bias.

Consistent with President Obama’s task force on 21st century policing, Dr. Borgida recommends collaboration between police and academic researchers to design and test evidence-based prejudice reduction programs that incorporate promising psychological approaches like intergroup contact or cooperative learning. Through collaboration and evidence-based policy making, two approaches Dr. Borgida stresses to his students, we might more systematically address real-world problems like police shootings of Black suspects.

Photo credit: Osajus, Flickr CC