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Training Vermont Cops To Take Bias Out Of Police Work

Training in Burlington was designed to help police aknowledge their bias but not let it effect their decisionmaking.

Mary Hoerig spends a lot of time talking about uncomfortable subjects.

“Who’s dying here?” she asks, pointing to a graph in front of a room full of law enforcement trainers from across the state. One says quietly  "black" - and Hoerig responds quickly, her point made: “Unarmed black men, potentially," she says.

Hoerig is an inspector with the Milwaukee Police Department, and she stood before about 20 Vermont law enforcement instructors Friday in a workshop teaching them how to train officers to avoid discriminatory policing.

“If, in fact, human beings have a race-crime bias – and we’re all human beings in here, no matter how well-intentioned we are – here, black people are dying, potentially,” she says.

Hoerig points to a graph that shows that people – not just police, but members of the general population – are quicker to identify blurry outlines of “crime objects” like guns, knives and handcuffs after seeing the faces of black people, than they otherwise would be.

Test subjects in the same experiment who were primed with images of white people’s faces were much slower to identify these images. In fact, that group was even slower to identify crime objects than a control group which didn’t see any faces before they were presented with the images.

Hoerig points to the graph showing the slower response of those who were primed with white faces.

“Who’s dying here?” she asks. “Cops.”

Her point is that police bias isn’t just unjust to people discriminated against, it’s dangerous and can lead police to miss important hints that could compromise their safety or their investigation.

In perhaps a more familiar example, trainers introduce Susan Boyle, the British woman who surprised judges on a talent show with her impressive voice, despite her age and appearance.

"You're part of the human race, so therefore you're going to have bias. What we need you to do is understand that you have bias, identify what bias you might have, and then sort of de-link that away from your behavior." - Inspector Mary Hoerig

The training strategy uses examples from research that officers may not have been aware of alongside real-life anecdotes and short video samples. The program teaches police trainers to show trainees, from new recruits to veteran officers, how scientific research applies to their jobs and how that knowledge can help them be more effective and safe in the line of duty.

Hoerig says research shows "that all human beings have bias - that it's sort of part of the human condition - and the goal right now with cops is to say 'You're part of the human race, so therefore you're going to have bias. What we need you to do is understand that you have bias, identify what bias you might have, and then sort of de-link that away from your behavior.'"

The trainers said removing bias from policing is vital to all aspects of the job, from safety to effectiveness to the very basis of police authority: the community's respect.

“If you’re over-vigilant or under-vigilant, it doesn’t come out well for you,” Hoerig said in an interview. “And the bottom line of the training is that policing based on bias is unsafe, which that graph I think shows; it’s ineffective, you might not get the person that you need to get; and it’s unjust which is probably the biggest piece of all.”

"If you're over-vigilant or under-vigilant, it doesn't come out well for you." - Inspector Mary Hoerig

Police trainers from agencies all over Vermont attended the training which Hoerig does in conjunction with Dr. Lorie Fridell, an academic who launched Fair & Impartial Policing to train officers on these difficult issues.

The Burlington Police Department, Vermont State Police and Vermont League of Cities and Towns sponsored the training, but all participating agencies also contributed to the three-day program.

Hoerig said she’s been working with Fair & Impartial Policing for almost five years, but she says interest in the program has gone way up in the past year, with major national attention on cases like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and the death of Eric Garner in New York.

“In the last year, it has really become a big topic of conversation,” Hoerig said.

While no cases as dramatic as those of Michael Brown or Eric Garner have happened in Vermont, black Vermonters say they do experience police bias.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Shirling said the department has been training officers on issues of police bias for years, but the research-based program from Fair & Impartial Policing is the most in-depth training on the topic that he’s overseen.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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