Police and community take a hard look at implicit bias

Lt. Erick Fors speaks about the Minneapolis Police Department’s new training in implicit bias and procedural justice at a Feb. 17 community forum at Studio 2. Photo by Michelle Bruch
Lt. Erick Fors speaks about the Minneapolis Police Department’s new training in implicit bias and procedural justice at a Feb. 17 community forum at Studio 2. Photo by Michelle Bruch

Minneapolis Police Department officers have begun training in implicit bias and procedural justice.

“They really enjoyed the difficult topics,” said Lt. Erick Fors.

Officers can be mystified when their professional behavior is met with hostility, he said, and it helps to talk about historical actions of law enforcement related to slavery and Jim Crow laws. They also learn how immigrants might perceive police, given past experience with policing in other countries.

“If you don’t understand how we got to where we are, how do we move forward from there?” Fors said.

Out of more than 100 cities who sought training through the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, Minneapolis was one of six cities selected. The training covers three main areas. Procedural justice covers how the public views the fairness of the policing process. Implicit bias covers the unconscious biases people unintentionally apply to characteristics like race, age and gender. Reconciliation involves repairing police-community relationships that have been damaged through historical tension, grievances and mistrust.

Staff from within the police department provide the training — one of them is Officer Butch Blauert, recognizable in Uptown as the area’s former day beat officer.

Council Member Linea Palmisano recently hosted the instructors at a community forum at Studio 2 to discuss the new training in-depth.

“We begin by talking to the officers about what justice is. And we talk about how that doesn’t always mean enforcing the law. We have discretion, and sometimes the greater good is served by that, using our discretion,” said Sgt. Darcy Horn.

She said research shows that citizens care more about respectful treatment than the outcome of an interaction with police.

As part of the training, police examine arrest rates, which show African Americans and Native Americans in Minneapolis are 8.7 and 8.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested for low-level offenses, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Officers also talk about the idealism they had when they first entered the police force.

“This is a 30-year career. And when you go from A to Z, officers get cynical,” said Glenn Burt, multi-strategy project site coordinator in Minneapolis for the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.

“[Police] deal with 3-6 percent of the entire population of Minneapolis — that can fit in about an eight block square radius if you line everybody up — but they get cynical because they’re dealing with, unfortunately, the people who cause the problems. And that cynicism wears, and it creates a form of trauma that sometimes is manifested in their interactions unintentionally. We are working to help officers recognize that, and also help the community recognize that, because it is important. Everybody has bad days, and in our case, that bad day we’re always on stage.”

Deputy Chief Medaria Arradondo said the conversations are raw and candid.

“It’s a very difficult conversation to have with a colleague, and to admit,” he said. “…There is nothing wrong with admitting you have the bias, what’s wrong is acting upon those and ignoring them and denying that they exist.”

Research suggests that biased associations can be gradually unlearned, according to the National Initiative, and it is possible to reduce implicit bias in law enforcement through training and policy change.

A long look in the mirror

While police have taken heavy scrutiny in recent months, one local blogger is urging Southwest residents to also take a “long look in the mirror.”

Fulton resident Mike Spangenberg is a former educator who works as a stay-at-home dad and blogs at questionthepremise.org. Spangenberg is a white guy in his 30s who works to question the dominant narratives and question all kinds of assumptions about race and identity. On the blog, he highlights a Minneapolis report on loitering arrests between 2009-2014. Victims or witnesses of loitering were 48 percent white, while arrests for loitering were 84 percent black.

“It’s not simply the case that Minneapolis Police officers disproportionately show up to harass Black people for low-level offenses on their own,” he writes. “They go because we call them and ask them to.  If we as White people are dispatching the police in a way that causes disproportionate police contact for people of color, we should not feign such surprise or righteous indignation at the resulting disparities in arrests.”

Minneapolis police report that arrests for marijuana possession in 2014 were 65.3 percent black and 22.7 percent white, while the ACLU reports that national marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites. Spangenberg said that if residents in Fulton thought their own neighborhood was more likely to face arrests for marijuana possession, they would take action and press for instant change.

“All of us who remain silent are perpetrating the system,” he said.

Spangenberg said he sees instances of implicit bias in casual conversation and in social media chatter about people deemed suspicious. The speakers are well-intentioned liberal white people who do not say anything overtly racist, he said, but there are still undertones when talking about North Minneapolis or bad neighborhoods.

“I think a person’s ability to determine something is suspicious by looking at a person is pretty limited,” he said. “…You kind of have to stop yourself — why did I notice that car?”

The nonprofit Project Implicit offers 10-minute tests that aim to gauge implicit attitudes at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.

Police ask residents not to hesitate in calling 911, and provide complete and specific information during the call.

At a 2014 listening session in Kingfield, Police Chief Janeé Harteau heard from a woman who said she’s become too afraid to visit North Minneapolis. The woman said young men on corners appear to be selling drugs, while police drive by and take no action.

Harteau said in response that she wants everyone to feel safe.

“But we need your help, because there is a person sitting on the corner that’s doing nothing, that I don’t want officers to stop, who are going to be offended,” Harteau said. “…So we need that call from you specifically. What is it they’re doing? It’s about behavior. It’s not about what somebody looks like, but behavior-specific. What are those people doing. What actions, what their description is, that’s the kind of information that we need.”

According to a report commissioned by the Police Conduct Oversight Commission, the Minneapolis Department of Emergency Communications issued an order defining a suspicious person 911 call as “someone who does not belong, appears out of place, or whose actions are suspect.” 911 operators are instructed to ask and document specifically what the suspect is doing that is suspicious.

Deputy Chief Bruce Folkens explained in a recent interview that if an unknown person is walking down the alley behind a caller’s house, police need more information before they can make a stop. The alley is a public area for people to walk, he said. But if the person is carrying a duffel bag, looking in windows or garages, and cutting in between houses, that’s deemed suspicious behavior, he said.

911 dispatchers send the call notes to the squad, and officers determine the tactical response, he said.

If a caller can articulate specific suspicious behaviors, officers can use the information as justification to make a stop, he said.

The MPD lists other examples of suspicious activity, including alarms, shots fired, the sound of breaking glass, shouts for help, or an unfamiliar person carrying items from a house. Folkens said additional suspicious activity could be a long leather coat worn in July, or many people visiting a house for five minutes at a time throughout the day and night.

“We all have that sixth sense,” Folkens said. “If something seems wrong, we really have to take a step back — what about that is causing that feeling?”

Folkens said if an unfamiliar vehicle is parked in front of his own house, he might watch to see if they’re looking at a phone or piece of paper, or he might ask them if they need directions.

“We never want to tell people not to call police,” he said. “When people do call police, call takers are asking specific questions about what is the behavior they’re seeing.”

The City Council voted to repeal spitting and lurking ordinances last year, citing disproportionate citations for people of color. The Council is currently considering repealing a law against congregating on the sidewalk.

Tough questions

At the community forum in February, resident Bennett Shields mentioned YouTube videos showing bad policing, and millions paid out in lawsuits against Minneapolis police.

“If a police officer is having a bad day … can they call in sick?” he asked.

Arradondo said a supervisor can always tell an officer to go home for the day. He said they have instituted monthly check-ins to talk about personal lives and any citizen complaints.

“For a paramilitary organization that has historically been males, oftentimes males coming out of the military, and just in terms of our socialization as males growing up, you keep everything bottled in. You don’t talk about when you’re having a bad day, you don’t talk when you’re emotional, all of these things. We’re trying to change that culture…” he said.

There is always a notorious officer that community members don’t want responding to their call for help, he said.

“We know these people. But for years, we’ve just allowed them to continue to do what they’ve been doing. We have to stop them,” he said.

Police are working on a new policy they call “duty to intervene.” Such a policy is recommended by the national Police Executive Research forum, and requires officers to intervene if they believe a colleague is about to use excessive or unnecessary force.

“That momentary action, that can impact a community for generations,” Arradondo said. “There are people today unfortunately in our community that because their grandfathers were treated unkindly, they have told that to their children, and their children, and we’re a product of that. So we have to have these conversations, and we have to get it right every day.”

Several people at the forum praised the police department.

“I commend you so much for taking on this effort. It speaks to the motivation, the professionalism that you seek to elevate to the highest level,” said resident Richard Logan.

One meeting attendee said he has serious concerns that some of the most inflammatory remarks made throughout the 4th Precinct protests came from a man elected president of the police union, and who has himself been the target of citizen complaints. How do you handle people who don’t see a problem to begin with?, he asked.

In response, Lt. Arthur Knight said he remembers fielding a question years ago on whether the police department is racist.

“The police department is made up of society. And if we have racism in society, we will have racism in the police department,” he said.

He said the country holds 800,000 police officers out of a population of more than 300 million people.

“We all have biases. What are we going to do with those biases? … And I can tell you this right here, when I look at the news, and I see a police officer misbehaving … good cops hate bad cops more than any other. You think citizens hate bad cops? Good cops hate bad cops.”

One meeting attendee said she can recall past police reform efforts, such as former Police Chief Tony Bouza requiring officers to wear name tags. She said everyone knows how hard it is to get rid of problem officers, and that structure hasn’t changed. Not every officer may want new training, she said.

“What’s different this time?” she asked. “…Is it the fact that everyone has cell phones?”

Arradondo highlighted the forthcoming body cameras, initially rolling out at Downtown’s 1st Precinct in May. And he mentioned a St. Paul sergeant who recently resigned over comments he made on social media.

“You have held us more accountable in this day and age,” he said.

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