The most uncomfortable part of Chris Saunders' four-hour law enforcement training includes a video depicting ethnic minority parents explaining to their children how to interact with police, and the caution they need to use.
Saunders has felt the mood tense in a room full of officers as they watch that clip. He’s used to that feeling.
Saunders manages the Ada County Sheriff’s Office’s data analytics intelligence division. His primary job is to work with statistics and numbers, but he also teaches what’s known as “implicit bias training,” which the sheriff’s office has implemented with funding from the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge. Saunders worked with two other Ada County Sheriff's Office employees, Jeffrey Austin and Ryan Wilke, to develop the training; all told, it cost $4,475, according to Patrick Orr, spokesman for the office. The goal of the training, which Saunders has taught more than a dozen times since August 2017, is to help officers realize the unavoidable subconscious human biases they have and the ways in which those biases might affect their actions as police officers.
The training is lecture- and discussion-based; Saunders encourages a candid conversation among those in the class. He has taught it to roughly 60 percent of the Ada County Sheriff’s Office’s staff, and earlier this month, for the first time, he taught it to a class of 36 officers at the statewide police academy in Meridian.
In December 2017, The Atlantic reported that such training was among best practices recommended by the Obama Administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and the training has become more common across the country in the wake of racially charged police-related incidents, such as the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
That’s why the video clip of the parents talking to their children is so incendiary.
For all that, however, the training is an exercise in empathy more than it is anything else.
“Give them the benefit of the doubt,” Saunders said. “As parents, what must have you experienced to feel that this conversation is necessary?”
The training isn’t one-sided though — it’s designed for police to talk plainly, as well.
“The first thing the training does is it normalizes bias,” Saunders said. “We spend a lot of time showing having biases is natural. ... We can’t stop it, and there’s no point in trying to stop it.”
Sgt. Brian Richardson, who took the course about a year ago, said he wasn’t exactly thrilled to find himself in the training when he took it about a year ago. The sheriff's office doesn't have a culture of racism, he pointed out.
"Most people in the class, I think, would feel comfortable saying, 'No, that's not me, why are we in this class?'"
He appreciated the instructors’ frankness, however, and the ability to have an honest conversation about the topic. It meant the officers weren’t under attack for being racist. In his class, for instance, one of the instructors told of how he'd picked up his own biases as a new officer in the Oakland area, while training with older officers. It took him a long time to realize he'd inherited implicit biases, and that they changed the way he interacted with people.
It was still uncomfortable, however. As part of the training, Richardson remembered watching videos of police interacting with people in blatantly biased ways.
“Those are always just tough to see no matter what because you want to defend your profession,” he said. “You want to (say), 'Hey, we’re not all like this.’ That’s probably the toughest part of it.”
For Richardson, one of the major takeaways was not about negative bias, but instead the fact that positive bias can also influence a police officer. He said in the past he was used to analyzing his contacts with citizens if they were heated or if they had a more negative tone. Analyzing more positive interactions with residents is something he does now, though, in order to look for any evidence he may have treated a person differently because he has a positive implicit bias toward them.
“I’ve done more of that looking back without there being a catalyst to make me want to look back,” Richardson said.
And it's not just about race either, Richardson said. People have implicit biases toward or against other people related to all areas of their identity and appearance, and any of those attitudes can influence an officer's interaction with a person.
Saunders is no stranger to studying bias. With a background in psychology, he developed a respect for the work of esteemed psychologist Sigmund Freud, who wrote often about the interplay between the conscious and subconscious mind. Most biases that people hold are neutral or even helpful, he pointed out, and they’re not limited to biases about people. He used the example of his own bias against a particular restaurant after the food made him sick — it’s an amoral fact of the mind. The goal of the training is to encourage officers to self-reflect on their own biases and the way they might shape them as a police officer.
“(We’re) subliminally trained in our mind," he said. "We don’t even realize we’re trained or we’re conditioned to believe these things, but they still have the potential to affect our behavior."
Despite the discomfort officers might feel during the hours they spend talking about bias in the class, the reception to the training has been positive, Saunders said. Officers seem to have appreciated the opportunity to talk about the issue in an unflinching light, but during last week’s training Saunders said one rookie officer asked him the obvious question — at what point should officers start talking about a solution to the problem instead of simply recognizing it?
“It’s a great question because I don’t know that there is a solid answer,” Saunders admitted.
What’s more, he knows there will never be a neat, concise way to track the effectiveness of the training. He could, for instance, track the numbers of complaints against officers involving race-related issues, but that data can be deceiving, and it’s not a public record either. And proving a negative is impossible — he’ll never be able to prove the training prevented an incident which otherwise may have occurred.
What’s more, there are no national requirements for police implicit bias training, The Atlantic story pointed out — police departments across the country, while encouraged to conduct such training, are largely left to themselves to develop a curriculum, as well as determine its effectiveness.
Still, Saunders said he doesn’t believe Ada County has a major race-relations problem between civilians and police officers, at least not in comparison to other parts of the country. His goal is to make sure those problems don’t crop up.
The goal, he added, was never just to educate police in Ada County. He wanted to train other police officers from across the state, and last week at the police academy was his first chance to do that.
“Gosh, you know, with a topic like this, to keep talking about it makes sure it doesn’t just fade into the background,” he said.