What Affect Does the Human Dimension and Human Bias Have on Policing?

There remains an awful lot of negative perceptions of police here in America. Since the summer of 2014, the issue of policing exploded in the national consciousness, etched there by video of one person after another dying at the hands of police. From street protests and riot over the shooting of Michael brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to Eric Garner being choked to death by a police officer on Staten Island while gasping, “I can’t breathe, “to a North Charleston officer slaying a fleeing Walter Scott by shooting him in the back repeatedly, to a police officer in Chicago firing at Laquan McDonald sixteen times. Hardly a week has passed since, without some new allegation of policing gone bad and the divide between the people and police widens and I feel most of it is centered on biases. This is troubling because the emotional reactions towards police because of this negative narrative, centered on perceived social injustice are not anywhere close to reality.  Nor is the emotional response warranted, by police that everyone hates us! What role does the human dimension and human bias play in this current conflict?

Because conflict is a clash between opposing human wills, the human dimension is central in conflict. It is the human dimension which infuses conflict with its intangible moral factors. Conflict is shaped by human nature and is subject to the complexities, inconsistencies, and peculiarities which characterize human behavior. Since conflict is based on irreconcilable disagreement, it will invariably inflame and be shaped by human emotions.

Social science is, concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society. Social scientists have defined bias. Simply put, bias may be thought as an unfair preference for or dislike of something. The biases that we have developed, were created in part of our personal experiences as well as exposure to direct and indirect messages through media, news and culture. They are thought to have developed at a very young age.  Science has shown that there are two types of bias; Explicit and Implicit Bias. The first is explicit bias.  This is where a person openly expresses their held belief, those biases that are consciously or deliberately acknowledged. The second is known as implicit.  These biases are automatic, unconscious and most of the time, we are unaware of them.  Scientists describe the process as a type of “unthinking discrimination”. Being aware of the two concepts will help familiarize the way they influence our actions, behaviors and decision making.

Implicit Bias has been a newly exciting topic in social science world.  Recently it has been introduced into criminal justice termed “biased based policing” or “hidden bias.”  It has profound impact on perceptions, actions and decision making abilities of not only police officers, but the people they police. In other words biases are a human thing. Understanding biases are not just for or against a person such as race or gender, but a person may have a bias towards objects as well. For example; Ford vs. Chevy, Foreign vs. Domestic cars, Based on family beliefs, personal experiences and external influences one might have an unfair preference for a vehicle.

We take what we know about a group or individual and correlate those facts with our bias and categorize them or stereotype. As stated earlier, we develop biases based on personal experiences and many other factors including culture.  Stereotypes are developed based on a type of in-group/out-group bias.  This bias is adaptive and is used to separate friend from foe, especially if little is known about the other group. We generally hold implicit biases that favor our own in-group bias and studies have shown that this bias is automatic and unconscious.

So what does this mean to the police who may pre-judge people, places and things and the people who may pre-judge police and their actions? We are most likely to stereotype the unknown.  When we encounter that unknown, we try to make it familiar by placing it in a social category so that it may become predictable. Simply, we take what we know and we “fill-in” the blanks.  This is known as the availability bias or heuristic. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person's mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.

Every day we process bits of information at both the conscious and unconscious levels.  To do this quickly, we have developed ways to organize our knowledge (topics) into broad categories. Just as we categorize high heels, sandals and boots as shoes, we categorize individuals the same way based on age, gender, race.  This process is known as automatic stereotype activation.  Each broad category is associated with a mental meaning or trait, which is activated upon being categorized.  The activation can influence our interactions with individuals.  For example you categorize an elderly male as “old” and the meaning associated to that might be “weak”.  By activating the “old” and “weak” definition, you may have a different interaction with him than you would compare to a teenager. Good cop/bad cop, good guy/bad guy or good neighborhood/bad neighborhood are other examples of automatic stereotype activation.

Policing based on stereotypes (or biases) is Unjust because we are making judgments based off demographics, race, and age….etc. Unsafe = when we “fill-in” the blanks, we can ultimately make the wrong decisions. This also holds true for pre-judging the police.

Stereotypes are developed based on repeated exposure to stimuli whether positive or negative.  While working in a high-crime area, Police Officers base their learned response to ambiguous stimuli on familiar characteristics from previous experiences or beliefs.  These stereotypes act from memory and guide perceptions of future encounters. There are many different categories of bias.  You may not have a bias against a certain race; however, you may have one against an age group or gender. As stated earlier, our brain is a big computer that process large amounts of information but we are prone to errors in judgment.  Although there are many social biases, there are three important ones that we encounter every day.  By having a solid understand of each, we begin to see the way biases influence our behavior. It’s important to understand explicit and implicit biases in order to ensure the way in which we police, or the way we judge the police is not “unjust” or “unsafe.”

Herman Goldstein, in his seminal book, Policing in a Free Society said; “The police, by the very nature of their function, are an anomaly in a free society. They are invested with a great deal of authority under a system of government in which authority is reluctantly granted and, when granted, sharply curtailed. The specific form of their authority to arrest, to search, to detain, and to use force—is awesome in the degree to which it can be disruptive of freedom, invasive of privacy, and sudden and direct in its impact upon the individual. And this awesome authority, of necessity, is delegated to individuals at the lowest level of the bureaucracy to be exercised, in most instances, without prior review or control.

Yet a democracy is heavily dependent upon its police, despite their anomalous position, to maintain the degree of order that makes a free society possible. It looks to its police to prevent people from preying on one another; to provide a sense of security; to facilitate movement; to resolve conflict, and to protect the very processes and rights—such as free elections, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly—on which continuation of a free society depends. The strength of a democracy and the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens are determined in large measure by the ability of the police to discharge their duties.”

Let us all open discussions in a candid and respectful way. Let’s all dig into the weeds, look at the facts over the headlines and the hype and let’s try and understand that we do not always make sound decisions when emotions are high and rational thinking is low. The idea is to obtain legitimacy from the public or society.  The public’s support and trust in the police and the police support and trust in the public. It’s the only way policing a free society works.

Stay Oriented!

Fred