Why is it Important for Police Officers to Conduct Ethnicity Bias Training Right Away?

Nov 26, 2021

The death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent and enhanced prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement have reignited debate and discourse worldwide around race and its’ societal disadvantages.  With that comes a desire for change in communities and within the police services that serve them.  This desire to move the dial on racism is in the face of not just George Floyd’s death, but also in response to a disparity in outcomes of police recruiting, development, specialism, promotion and misconduct.  To date, not much has seemed to work. Police recruitment from within Black, Asian, and other ethnic minority communities has increased, but there is continued adverse impact on these communities within recruitment processes themselves. Internally, staff associations highlight disparity in opportunities for development, specialism, and promotion. Externally, communities, the media and politicians highlight a disparity in the quality and quantity of policing services, including Stop-Search and use of Force.  A different approach is clearly needed.

What is it?

The Implicit Bias Test typically involves the online sorting of pictures (faces) and words which assess the strength of association between particular social groups and positive or negative thoughts and ideas.  The tests compare the response patterns, looking for areas or points where the test taker slows down or makes mistakes in following the sorting rules. It relates the response patterns to the likelihood that the test taker has implicit biases that may affect their decisions and behaviour.   Bias testing is designed to facilitate individual insight into personal biases, as a means of effecting change.

Implicit bias training is unlikely to change everyone’s biases.  Organizational systems and processes need to support individual change, but understanding implicit bias, and personal insight through bias testing, coupled with employment of quite simple cognitive strategies, do seem to have an effect on reducing biases and the willingness to challenge bias.

The idea of bias testing is not new. Dutch physician Franciscus Donders first suggested that we may be able to access implicit cognitive processes using the speed of response back in 1868. However, it was the use of modern computers in 1998 at Harvard University, capable of measuring response times, which made bias testing possible.  A review of police recruitment practices by the U.K College of Policing following the 2003 ‘Secret Policeman’ documentary, which showed recruits acting in a racist manner, noted the potential for implicit bias testing.

However, the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is not without controversy.  Since 2006 and a paper penned by psychologists Hart Blanton and James Jaccard, it has been suspected that the Harvard test may not predict meaningful real-world behaviour. It was subsequently found that the test is unreliable (i.e. it gives different results if taken twice). These shortcomings were controlled in 2009 and since then, over 10,000 bias tests have been taken by police officers and policing support staff, and over 300,000 tests have been taken across other sectors in the U.K. using the Implicitly® platform.

The Importance of Implicit Bias Testing in Police Recruiting

The idea of bias testing all police recruits was first muted by Her Majesty Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC, now HMICFRS) in 2009. However, the SEARCH recruitment process was not set up with the appropriate IT infrastructure or flexibility to facilitate full cohort testing. At that point, robust testing was in its’ infancy, no robust data on levels of bias amongst police officers was available, and as a result, implicit bias testing was set aside.

When the discussions with HMIC were held in 2009, an emphasis was placed on bias testing as insight into a potential recruit’s biases, not as an absolute block to potential employment. Recruits with moderate bias levels might face additional questions in final interviews, or have additional character references sought. They may also have to agree to actions to mitigate and change biases, being built into their training and development programme. Exposure to positive role models, positive contact with minority groups and being held accountable for key decisions are all known to help reduce implicit biases.  To be clear, for those with higher levels of bias (5 per cent of recruits) and those who show little understanding of or motivation to mitigate their biases, a simple risk management decision may exclude them from the remainder of the recruitment process. However, the majority should be able to proceed through the remainder of the process, and take part in retesting before their training period concludes.

Importance of Implicit Bias in Staff Development

Bias testing new recruits is one way of reducing bias at the front door, but most police officers are already in their role. The anxiety created by bias testing with potential sanctions for serving officers is not, in my opinion, practical at this time, as it is known that anxiety can reduce our capacity to control biases.  Voluntary, developmental bias testing with personal feedback for all officers and staff has been rolled out across one UK police force. This one-shot model is simple to extend, by allowing staff to digitally access bias tests on an as-needed basis.  Staff should not be overwhelmed with too much testing or advice/coaching, but quarterly offers of testing using different tests may result in a more positive outcome. Testing can be completely customized to suit local needs in communities. For example, forces may offer faith and ethnicity tests in an areas with a large South Asian community, sexual orientation tests for staff posted to an area with a large LGBTQIA2S+ community.

Tests are not restricted to general protected characteristics or stereotypes. We have developed specific tests for professional standards staff, police leadership, and specifically around Stop and Search.

How can Implicit Bias Testing be used as an Organizational Audit?

The capacity to assess bias levels across geographical commands, ranks, or roles affords justice services and policing agencies an opportunity to not only direct resources and attention to areas with the greatest challenges, but also to identify areas where low bias levels can be leveraged. Periodic retesting helps track the effectiveness of those interventions.

How can Implicit Bias Testing be used as an Evaluation?

Just as testing can be used to track wide-scale change, it can be used to assess the impact of initiatives such as training or community engagement sessions. Tests taken before, after and at intervals throughout initiatives may indicate the longevity or otherwise of these interventions.

Implicit Bias Testing in The Context of Personal Change

Bias testing alone will probably lead to individual reflection, but not necessarily to change.  Reflection is not enough, and intentional action is required.  Research suggests the following steps are involved in changing personal bias levels:

  1. Understanding the underlying principles of implicit bias

This only needs to be a basic understanding, which can be developed using a range of training methods. This basic understanding is provided within just a short animation, as part of the Implicitly® test platform.

  1. Bias Testing

Testing targeted of issues relevant to local communities and police services serves as a motivation for officers to want to control their own biases. Implicitly® can deliver a range of tests targeted at specific communities.

  1. Advice and Support

Test takers must be able to understand how to change. Therefore, actions need to be simple, easy, and reinforced by an organization’s broader systems and processes. Testing should provide non-pejorative feedback and detailed advice, together with support for action planning. Implicitly® provides advice to test takers, by recommending simple actions that can be taken.

  1. Practice

Organizational structures and processes must support the new practices, or at least not resist them.

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