What Oakland police's 'implicit bias' could mean for police reform

A team of Stanford researchers hope a collaborative approach can make police departments receptive to reform.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Oakland Police Department officer Huy Nguyen attaches a body camera designed to record audio and video in the field.

Oakland police officers showed little explicit racism or intentional discrimination, but implicit bias against African-Americans was to blame for the department's racial disparities, Stanford University researchers found in a study released Wednesday. 

Following a two-year investigation based on the department's data, researchers wrote that officers "stopped, searched, handcuffed and arrested more African-Americans than Whites," even after controlling for factors like neighborhood crime rates and the race of the officer. African-Americans were disproportionately stopped for minor offenses – an effect magnified among less experienced officers – while police tended to employ more severe legal language and offer fewer explanations for the stop than with whites.

"The racial disparities we have uncovered during our two-year investigation are clear and undeniable," wrote the authors.

The data also revealed thorny relations between the police and the community along racial lines. African-Americans and Hispanics in Oakland were more likely to say they felt disrespected or misunderstood by police than whites or Asian residents did. 

Experts define implicit bias as a kind of unconscious prejudice.

"We categorize individuals and objects to make sense of the world, which includes categorizing people we don't know according to group membership," fair-policing expert Lorie Fridell wrote in a 2013 paper. "We then attribute to these individuals the stereotypes associated with their group. This does not require animus; it requires only knowledge of the stereotype."

In one study from 2002, researchers ran a video game simulation in which participants encountered black and white targets, both armed and unarmed, and had to decide quickly whether to shoot. "Though race is irrelevant to this task, participants are faster and more likely to shoot Black targets," the authors concluded.

The Stanford study originates partly from a settlement reached in 2003, in which the city agreed to collect and analyze stop data. The agreement helped resolve a 2000 lawsuit revealing that a group of Oakland police known as "the Riders" had committed a slew of constitutional violations against African-Americans during stops, including planting of evidence, unreasonable seizures, false arrests and imprisonments, and even kidnapping.

These new findings may amount to more bad press for a police department already embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct. Five officers have been put on leave, and two more have resigned, as an investigation unfolds into whether officers had sex with a minor, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

But the researchers stress that they want the reports to serve as a model for how police departments can use science to improve community relations – one that bridges the divides that have grown increasingly rancorous in debates over policing. 

"We wanted to chart this third path by using science, data driven problem solving approach to examine and bring to light really hard truths but also try to identify a possible way forward," Rebecca Hetey, Stanford psychologist and one of the study's two lead researchers, says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Two models, said Dr. Hetey, tend to predominate when it comes to debates over policing. In one model, analysts set out to uncover racial disparities, find them, and attack the department for it. "In response, the department gets defensive, and instead of studying the problem at hand, it turns into a defense of their own reputation when that's not the point." The other model, she said, "is the denial that there's a problem at all."

"We give credit to the Oakland Police Department. They have a rough past in this area but they're open to reimagining what policing is," said Hetey. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misquoted Dr. Hetey. She said "past," not "path."]

Despite the rather critical findings, the department made statements welcoming the results. Assistant chief of police Paul Figueroa called the report "a road map forward" in a statement published alongside the results.

Police in other cities have reacted to scandal or court rulings by ordering implicit-bias training for their officers. But Hetey and her fellow researchers hope Oakland police's public embrace of the study may encourage similar reform from other departments.   

"I think it'll have a national impact because of the approach we took," she said.

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