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Implicit Bias Training and Things That Sound Good

Occasionally something will come across my Twitter feed that sparks some interest. One of those posts was from Thomas Abt, a criminologist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The content of the tweet?

I’ll be honest: I’ve never given much thought to the concept of implicit bias or to police training in the area beyond observing that I’ve yet to see any credible evidence base for any of the training police receive on any topic. However, having tried – and failed – to conduct a systematic review on police training techniques, I was intrigued by Abt’s claim. I was particularly intrigued when my retweet received a response from a federal Minister stating that such research had indeed been published by two criminologists in the U.S., both of whom are ardent proponents of this training.

So … I went and took a look at the research literature and low and behold: there are no published, peer-reviewed evaluations of implicit bias training for police officers. Let me repeat: ZERO. At best, what I could find was:

  • Studies that assume implicit bias is a valid concept and an appropriate explanatory variable for understanding police behaviour.

“A major cause of biased policing is likely the biases that operate outside of conscious awareness and control but nevertheless influence our behaviors” (Spencer et al. 2016).

"Implicit bias seems to be a universal primitive function of all brains. Police officers have been found to have near universal implicit bias against racial and ethnic minorities” (Price and Payton 2017).

  • Studies that assume the above and apply it to use of force situations

Let’s start with the assumption that implicit bias is a valid concept. Despite claims that “the existence of implicit bias is beyond reasonable doubt” (Jost et al. 2009), the social psychology literature also contains counter-arguments that question the evidence base for the usefulness of this construct. A recent chapter by Mitchell (2018), who reviews the overall literature on both implicit bias and its use in policing research, illustrates this alternative view:

Now, if you’re perfectly happy to leave aside contentions surrounding whether implicit bias exists and is useful for understanding any behaviour, including police decision-making, and want to simply accept that’s it’s true because it sounds good, then that’s fine. We can turn to the issue with which I am most concerned: the millions of dollars spent on police training and workplace consultants on untested, unproven ideas and programs. Remember: not one quality evaluation of any form of implicit bias training could be located. I looked. Thomas Abt looked. A bunch of other people who are experts in the area looked. Not one. But it sounds good, right?

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