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Why the Department of Justice wants to force its 28,000 employees to confront unconscious racial biases

Why the Department of Justice wants to force its 28,000 employees to confront unconscious racial biases
The U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

As police have grappled with accusations of racism in the wake of shootings of unarmed black Americans, the Department of Justice has pushed law enforcement departments to undertake increasingly popular trainings on how unconscious biases – such as racial prejudice – influence policing.

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Now, the federal department is turning the mirror on itself.

Justice officials announced Monday that more than 28,000 employees will take part in mandatory implicit bias training over the next year, forcing federal agents to confront their subtle views on race and a host of other issues, including gender and sexual orientation.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Sally Yates in October 2015.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Sally Yates in October 2015. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

The trainings will include 5,800 U.S. attorneys and 23,000 federal agents in the FBI; Drug Enforcement Administration; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and U.S. Marshals Service.

"Given that the research is clear that most people experience some degree of unconscious bias, and that the effects of that bias can be countered by acknowledging its existence and utilizing response strategies, it is essential," Deputy Atty. Gen. Sally Yates said in a statement announcing the program. Yates, along with the FBI Director James B. Comey and senior officials of the three other law enforcement agencies, will be the first to undergo the trainings on Tuesday.

The move comes after criticism of the department, which had encouraged local police to take part in such trainings but had not widely implemented anti-bias curriculum internally. A presidential task force on policing created in the wake of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and ensuring protests in Ferguson, Mo., included implicit bias as one of the areas law enforcement should emphasize. Justice officials have done occasional programs on unconscious bias, but this is the first department-wide program on the matter.

Since 2010, the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which supports local police through education programs and grants for hiring and equipment, has helped train more than 2,600 police through an effort called Fair and Impartial Policing. A version of the program, developed by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, will be used for federal agents. It covers race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as "socioeconomic and professional status," according to the department.

Though such trainings are becoming common in police departments, they're not without controversy. Racial bias among police has long been studied – a 1974 article from UC Berkeley criminologist Paul Takagi famously said "police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks" – but the data on how unconscious views affect law enforcement are mixed. In a study released this year, Washington State University researchers found that officers were three times less likely to shoot unarmed black people than unarmed white people.

Police try to remove Jasmine Richards at a lectern after she exceeded the time limit at a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting on May 17, 2016. Before the meeting, Black Lives Matter members and others held a news conference criticizing the city.
Police try to remove Jasmine Richards at a lectern after she exceeded the time limit at a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting on May 17, 2016. Before the meeting, Black Lives Matter members and others held a news conference criticizing the city. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Scholars have also criticized implicit bias training, saying the research on its effectiveness is limited at best.

"The new sexy thing to talk about is implicit bias, but I worry that the other areas that are certainly as important if not more are pushed aside as a result," such as how law enforcement employees are trained to de-escalate potentially violent situations, said Destiny Peery, a law professor at Northwestern University. "In some ways, the discussion of implicit bias has come to the exclusion of discussion about systemic or institutional biases."

Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice, called the Justice Department training a "major step forward."

"Often those with good intentions don't recognize the ways in which they have been influenced by America's long history of racialized 'justice,'" Jones-Brown said. "The DOJ especially needs to be aware of the negative impact the country's racialized history can have on its interpretation of fairness and constitutional rights."

Jaweed Kaleem is The Times' national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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