Members in the Media
From: Time

She Wrote a Book About Bias. Here’s How She Thinks Police Departments Should Approach Reform

Jennifer Eberhardt is a Stanford professor and MacArthur Genius award recipient who has worked with several police departments to improve their interactions with communities of color. In her 2019 book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do, she examines the role that implicit bias—which she defines as “the beliefs and the feelings we have about social groups that can influence our decision making and our actions, even when we’re not aware of it”—plays a role in community-police relations, and how that bias can be overcome, managed or mitigated with evidence-led training. She spoke to TIME about what police departments should be doing now.

You’ve worked with several police departments on improving their practices to make the interactions between the police and communities of color more productive. We have a lot of energy behind reform right now. What would you like to see?

A lot of police departments have these implicit-bias trainings. This is like a huge business now, where you have consultants who can come in and provide that service. But more often than not, those trainings aren’t evaluated, and so we don’t know how effective they are actually at moving the needle in terms of more equitable policing. We don’t actually have data. I’ll go into police departments, and even when they say that they are evaluating the training, it’s more “did you like the training?” It’s not the kind of gold standard. That’s what we need more of. A lot of these implicit-bias trainings have focused on informing people about bias. But I feel like we need to focus on changing the conditions that promote bias rather than simply providing knowledge to people about bias.

In your book Biased you write of studies others have done that show that in heightened situations the police made fewer mistakes than civilians. Is that because they’re trained?

Yes, in these “shoot, don’t shoot” studies participants are supposed to push a button labeled shoot if they see someone who’s holding a gun. And don’t shoot if they’re holding a harmless object. And the finding was that police officers as well as community members are faster to shoot black people with guns than white people with guns. But when you look at the error rate, police officers were less likely than normal people to shoot a black person with no gun than they are to shoot a white person with no gun. And when the researchers looked at what was driving that effect, they found that the more interactive use-of-force training officers had, the less likely they were to show a racial bias in terms of the error rate. If you train officers to do their job better, if there’s intensive training, sometimes you’re also decreasing the likelihood that that bias can play a role.

Think about bias as the sort of automatic associations that people make between African Americans and crime that they practice over a lifetime. If you have training that disrupts that association and pushes you to override it, then you might imagine that that could also decrease racial disparities in terms of their actions.

Read the whole story: Time

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Looking at police departments with substantial brutality histories, no amount of training is likely to change behavioral norms sustained by an organizational culture (OC) that tolerates brutality. OC is “the tried and true ways we do things in the workplace.” As such, attitudes and perceptions are colored by beliefs, lore, and peer reinforcement. Some of that comes from misguided training programs, ambiguous job descriptions, and inadequate policies and job practices.

Cultures once formed are designed to be self-reinforcing of methods and norms for behavior. As somebody who has spent a significant part of his career supporting culture change initiatives, mostly in the military and federal agencies, my observation is that training alone is insufficient to change organizational cultures. Job descriptions must change, roles must change, leaders must change – and walk their talk. Basically, the makeup of the entire workforce has to change.

The only way to achieve that sort of change quickly is to separate personnel with performance histories and attitudes that are not compatible with their new roles and responsibilities in line with the sort of OC communities want for their police. Specifically, some supervisory personnel must be separated along with incumbents who have performance histories inconsistent with new organizational norms established by their city councils.

Unfortunately, we have witnessed on TV that many police unions reinforce norms that are in direct opposition to even existing community expectations much less revised ones. It is reasonable to expect that those unions will resist changes to the new OC the community desires. Legally, unions may only be eliminated as barriers to culture change by disestablishing police forces entirely and re-incorporating new organizational to replace them which narrow police job roles and responsibilities and demand new performance norms that ensure public safety while sustaining community peace.

The incorporation of a new police force means hiring only ex-police force members who qualify by training and performance that they are likely to be in tune with new organizational culture norms. Basic training for police must include at least a state certification and continuing education annually validated to stop bad actors from moving from one force to another. That likely will require new state laws that will delineate incumbent qualifications and standards of behavior which conform to community expectations and a more narrow span of responsibilities aimed at making lethal force a last rather than first resort.

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