SALT LAKE CITY —Polcie officers must filter a barrage of information through verbal communication and body language as they patrol the streets, and in doing so, sometimes react based on implicit mental biases — for good and bad.
Not to be confused with explicit bias, which would include outright prejudicial treatment, implicit bias is the unconscious way a person's brain works.
"When you don't have a lot of time to make decisions and a lot of information, which is police work, then that implicit system will be your default system," said Mary Hoerig, a master instructor for Fair and Impartial Policing. She spent the week with the Salt Lake City Police Department helping officers recognize bias in an effort to improve community relations.
Hoerig said that implicit bias is important to recognize when officers make discretionary decisions like who to stop or who to trust in an encounter.
Police departments know how to filter out candidates with explicit bias, but people are often unaware of their implicit biases. These biases are formed by life experiences and learned methods and are mostly used to quickly categorize complete strangers.
While officers are trained to deal with a range of interactions, their training focuses on identifying threats and responding to escalating situations. One place where training can improve, however, is in recognizing implicit biases that have the potential to disrupt trust and cooperation between police officers and their community.
She said implicit bias is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly under high stress situations, where emergency training has to kick in. However, implicit bias can impact how well police and civilians cooperate.
The course focused on identifying implicit bias when it is affecting an interaction. Officers can be both overly responsive and underly responsive, either adding unnecessary conflict or failing to realize potential danger when they feel a positive implicit bias toward someone.
As part of the training, Hoerig asked community members with concern about unfair policing to share their issues directly with police.
"Anytime you can reach out to a group that is mistrusting or have historical hurts that they perceive to have happen by the police, to come in and have a dialogue together, you can't beat that," Hoerig said.
Police Lt. Eddie Cameron, a training coordinator for the department, said the bias training offered techniques on how to deal with biases as well as some reassurances for existing training when threats arise.
"If somebody is maybe positioning themselves in a certain way, like they are standing bladed to me or they have their hand hidden there, that might be an indicator they are going for a weapon," Cameron said. "In those split second decisions then, we just fall back on the training we have always done."
Cameron said the majority of police work is everyday interactions, that people don't tend to focus on, and he said that is where the training will show, and trust will improve.
"We do want to put them at ease and, hopefully, this will start a conversation with some of our community leaders," Cameron said.
He said he wants to see officers that are more comfortable engaging with citizens.
Hoerig said the Salt Lake police were at an advantage by not asking for the training during a crisis period.
"I think they just understand that this is a national conversation, trying to get ahead and stay ahead," She said.