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KC-area law enforcement agencies, psychologist discuss implicit bias screening, training

overland park police
Posted at 12:03 PM, Jun 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-26 23:47:20-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the last several weeks, 41 Action News asked some local police departments how they check for potentially harmful biases when bringing new officers onto the force.

Before new officers start to serve in Overland Park, Officer Ken Braden trains them in “Fair and Impartial Policing."

“The training is designed to make sure you understand that ‘I’m human. I have biases, and I recognize that I have that bias,'” Braden, who has taught the course for the last five years, said. “I force you out of your shell. I give you examples. We watch videos.”

Lenexa, and Kansas City, Missouri, said they also include training they say addresses bias as well as a background check and psychological evaluation.

“We will send our background officers, we’ll send them all over the country to talk to people’s friends, teachers, relatives,” Lenexa Human Resources Director James Bowers said. "We ask specifically the questions, ‘Have you ever heard this person make any kind of racist comments or any knowledge of them being involved with any kind of racist organizations, etc.'”

“We also have a psychological evaluation by a medical doctor,” Capt. Gregory Williams of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department said.

“They go through a social media check, an extensive social media check looking extensively for racist and white supremacist and other sorts of postings and leanings,” Bowers said.

“I’m not sure there is a test that can give you that. You can look at their past histories. You can ask them questions. I ask every applicant that makes it past the background check if they have any biases that might impact them,” Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte said about hiring deputies. “Sometimes you don’t even know you have those biases. They’re just in you and you can defend them.”

Mikah Thompson is an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law who also provides continuing education on topics like implicit bias.

“Our explicit biases are out in the open. They’re clear. We understand them,” she said. “Implicit biases are the opposite. They exist on a subconscious level. The gut-level decisions, that instinct that we like to rely on, that is oftentimes bias decision making."

“The way to address that from our standpoint is to train folks on it, to make them aware of it,” Bowers said.

“Racial bias training we do every year,” Williams said. “During the academy, there is extensive training with it.”

For clinical psychologist Saz Madison, evaluating bias is only one part of a bigger picture of cultural competence, a crucial variable he said is used to decide if an applicant is suited to be an officer.

“Primarily we are not getting the types of evaluations that would incorporate these things you’re asking about. To a degree, that’s going to make a significant difference in the country," Madison said.

Dr. Madison gives the pre-employment evaluations for the Lenexa Police Department and said he works with dozens of other agencies.

While he said most police departments do use pre-employment evaluations, he believes there need to be more resources like a national standard of practice for those exams that include cultural competence. Right now, he said, there is only guidance.

“It is severely undervalued. A lot of agencies do a pre-employment evaluation as sort of an opportunity to check a box, ‘Yeah we did that, right? We sent them for their psych and now let’s move on,'" Madison said.

Dr. Bruce Cappo said he believes most police departments do follow national guidance for pre-employment evaluations, including his company that works with the Overland Park Police Department.

In an email, Cappo said while their pre-employment evaluations “should and do screen for cultural bias to the extent we are able to do so,” he also said, “there is no particular validated and reliable instrument that provides specific information about cultural bias accepted in the psychological community.

“People inquire either by written questions the applicant completes or by interview questions to get at the issue of bias. Some tests may have a scale labeled bias although this relies on the honesty of the applicant. Those applicants obviously biased are easier to identify. Detecting more subtle bias is much more challenging."

Cappo did say there has been a push to develop a tool to measure bias.

Madison said he is working on research right now to develop a tool to measure multicultural bias and does what he can now with his current pre-employment evaluations.

“I have integrated into my assessment battery measures of multicultural competence that are designed to assess the entire realm of competence in that regard. That includes multicultural skills, knowledge, awareness and willingness to engage," he said.

Dr. Robin Inwald is a member of the American Board of Police and Public Safety Psychology and director of a company that publishes psychological tests and develops screening instruments to predict police officer behavior.

She sent a statement regarding the challenges she says exist in creating a job-related test for bias.

“We know that documented poor police/public safety officer behaviors (measured by specific indicators such as termination, disciplinary actions, absence/lateness patterns, and poor supervisory ratings) are best predicted using groups of different scales on personality/behavioral tests (such as anger patterns, alcohol/drug use, antisocial attitudes, lack of candor, etc...)

"Despite numerous efforts over the past four decades, there are two challenges that account for the reason a job-related test for implicit bias or racism has not been developed in this field. First, we need to develop a clear and observable definition for implicit bias or racism, with specific behaviors that can be documented in working officers by their supervisors (i.e., how much/many of those specific behaviors must be present in order to differentiate between biased and unbiased individuals).

"Second, while administrators have long asked for specific tests in this area, they have been unwilling to identify individuals in their ranks who they would characterize as having racist or biased behaviors. Without studying a group of identified officers having these characteristics (who were tested at the pre-employment level), and comparing their test scores to a working group of officers that does not meet the precise definition, a test cannot demonstrate its predictive accuracy," the statement read.

Cappo believes training is an excellent way to address the issue of bias.

The agencies 41 Action News spoke with also say they are continuously looking for ways to improve.

“Are we doing enough? I think we can always do more,” Williams said.

“In law enforcement, 'most' is not good enough. All of us have to be good,” Forte said.

Deputy Chief Karl Oakman also talked about moving forward in a recent 41 Action News town hall.

“When it comes to bias and respect, we offer the training but we can be more robust in that training,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”