The Denver Police Department is relying on a social psychologist associated with theories on “racism without racists” for advice on whether it is doing everything possible to rid itself of racial and gender bias.
The city’s police have been accused in the past of using excessive force against minority people, notably in the wake of a shooting death of a mentally disabled African American youth in 2003. The city agreed last month to pay $885,000 to a 16-year-old Latino youth who complained that a white officer repeatedly jumped on his back. An officer was suspended without pay after the incident and charged with a felony of first-degree assault causing serious bodily injury but has denied the allegations.
Police Chief Gerry Whitman commissioned the study by Phillip Goff, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who is known as an expert in what some scholars are calling “racism without racists.”
“When we fixate on the racist individual, we’re focused on the least interesting way that race works,” said Goff, told The New York Times recently in an article on how bias might function in the election of Barack Obama to be president. “Most of the way race functions is without the need for racial animus.”
Goff says the department wants to ensure that the officers they hire are most likely to engage in non-biased policing. Goff says he is doing the study for free. The review has been under way for a year.
“This will get to the bottom of burning issues we’ve been looking at for decades,” said Tracie Keesee, chief of the Police Department’s Research, Training and Technology Division. Whitman asked Keesee to spearhead the Denver review.
Goff said Denver’s police department has been proactive to find solutions as he has shown them his work.
“When I bring them the findings, they talk about it immediately and say, ‘OK, this is real. How do we go about fixing it?”’
Goff said he plans to begin publishing his findings next year in academic journals. He is also conducting brain scans of some officers and collecting physiological tissue, such as blood or saliva, to detect hidden biases from how officers react to certain images.
The San Jose Mercury News reported last week that unprecedented access allowed the scientists to delve into how police officers were making decisions when stopping to question blacks. The lessons from the research has helped “translate what we’re learning in the lab — the police department — to policing concepts,” said Goff told the San Jose paper.
Goff leads the newly formed Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity, a group that will coordinate the expansion of the Denver project to 10 other police departments next year.
“We look at problem outcomes,” he told the paper, “and try to figure out what causes them — and how to stop them.”
He said that when researchers learned of a high dropout rate for female police recruits, the department put in place a mentoring program. Another study showed that race affected police decisions to shoot. That led the department to change firearms training to include a more interactive approach and teach police to use more voice commands.
“This is a real world laboratory,” Goff said.
Keesee said the department will review training and recruiting practices, according to the San Jose newspaper.
“In recruiting, should we prescreen for people’s biases? Do we do this?” Keesee said. “We’re asking that tough question.”
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