Can Mindfulness Training help overcome Implicit Biases in the Police Force

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices”.― William James, 1890

The recent high profile death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis has proven to be a tipping point globally. Police departments, particularly in the United States; have come under increased scrutiny over their use of excessive force and aggression resulting in a number of unarmed black citizens deaths.

Protests worldwide have demanded change, but how?

What strategies can be applied to support changing Policing behaviours and actions in a positive way?

The police reform organisation ‘Campaign Zero’ has addressed this very question. They have proposed a number of solutions to help end police violence.

One of their main recommendations calls for training programs to uncover and change implicit biases.

What is implicit bias?

Description: This spring, Starbucks closed its U.S. stores so employees could participate in an afternoon of education about racial bias.

In April 2018, a Philadelphia Starbucks manager decided to call for police to arrest two black men who were sitting in the coffee shop.

What caused this event to escalate to a point where police were requested if there was no issue?

 In the aftermath of this unfortunate event the Starbucks CEO and the city mayor attributed the manager’s decision to implicit racial bias. As a result Starbucks took action and closed its doors for half a day on May 29 to put 175,000 employees through an education program on understanding implicit bias and its implications.

Even though we may not realize it, we all make subtle choices everyday based on underlying assumptions or memories. In his bestselling book, ‘The practical neuroscience of Buddha’s brain’, Rick Hanson describes the rapid retrieving process used by our brain to rebuild implicit or explicit memories based on associations that emotionally trigger our interior landscape.

While many of us condemn racism and actively support actions toward equality, these intentions may not be enough to combat a psychological reaction: implicit bias.

The term implicit bias (or unconscious bias) was first devised by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald in 1995. They defined it as a subtle, and largely unconscious, attitude that influences behaviour. Implicit bias results from the cognitive tendency to process information based on associations, beliefs, attitudes or feelings towards a social group. There are many different examples of implicit biases, ranging from categories of race, gender, and sexuality.

You are not necessarily prejudiced or inclined to discrimination towards other people. It simply means:

  • We tend to seek out patterns. Implicit bias occurs because of the brain’s natural tendency to look for patterns and associations in the world.
  • We like to take shortcuts. Like other cognitive biases, implicit bias is a result of the brain’s tendency to try to simplify the world.
  • Experience and social conditioning play a role. Implicit biases are influenced by experiences, although these attitudes may not be the result of direct personal experience. Cultural conditioning, media depictions, and upbringing can all contribute to the implicit associations that people form about the members of other social groups.

What Are the Implications of implicit Unconscious Bias in law enforcement?

There are very few places where implicit bias can have such a profound impact as policing. A split-second decision with a stranger is the exact kind of situation where biases come into effect. It can mean life or death.

In a 2016 psychology article, Katherine Spencer indicates implicit biases will influence judgments and behaviours when a situation is ambiguous.

Research has shown individuals can consciously embrace ideas of fairness and equality.  However, on tests that measure subconscious tendencies, individuals still display a strong propensity to lean on stereotypes to fill in the blanks about people they don’t know.

Explicit racial prejudices of police officers connected to any incident has proven challenging to authenticate. However, the role of implicit bias has been easier to research and validate. Officer decisions may be influenced by biases that are operating outside of their conscious awareness. The idea that officers may have subtle implicit biases that influence their behaviour and decisions in ways that they are not consciously aware of is certainly a topic worthy of investigation.  

A good example of the subtlety of implicit bias comes from a study by Fachner and Carter (2015). They described how implicit bias can creep into officers’ most critical decision: to shoot or not to shoot. Shootings of unarmed African Americans by officers of the Philadelphia Police Department found instinctive choices were made based on misperception of the situation. Officers claimed their judgements were based on factual information; however evidence strongly suggests their responses to the perceived threat were based on implicit racial bias. When confronted by a vulnerable dangerous situation, preconceptions judgements based on survival kick in.  Any object or action will prompt a reaction in the moment.

How does the stress of being a police officer influence decisions?

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image care of Unsplash

A recent USA Today article suggested we need to better understand the day to day demands of being a police officer to better understand what is influencing reactions.

Law enforcement is widely regarded as one of the most stressful professions in the United States and other countries around the world. The impact of stress extends far beyond the work environment to all facets of life. High levels of condemnation, examination and stress play a big part in eroding physical and mental wellbeing.

In the UK, Police surveys have shown that more than 50% of UK officers have used sick leave for mental health reasons in the past five years. 70% of officers have pursued a path exiting the force due to “the impact of the job on health and wellbeing.”

A research study in 2015 by Oregon’s Pacific University found when police struggle with stress, they are more likely to show uncontrolled anger toward suspects. Anger appears to be particularly problematic in the work of policing. Constant exposure to major stressors elevates the risk of aggression and excessive use of force.

Under stress, the mind looks for mental shortcuts to quickly understand reality and make rapid decisions about whether to fight flight or freeze.

In his bestselling book, ‘The Chimp Paradox’, Professor Steve Peters suggests this survival instinct of fight, flight or freeze is arguably the most used of every species on this plant. “It is meant to evoke intense emotion because it is there to ensure survival in situations”.  It is an automatic response to combat a real or perceived threat.

Numerous studies have concluded cognitive overload, and stressful environments can often be catalysts for triggering implicit bias. Stressed police officers are more vulnerable to making poor decisions when under pressure. Volatile situations make it difficult for officers to override their implicit biases and display cognitive control of their attention and actions.

These kinds of outcomes have been examined closely by other sectors where stress is a dominant factor. Research conducted at an Emergency ward in Western Pennsylvania focused on the actions and behaviours of shift doctors. Evidence suggested when cognitive and emotional resources become compromised due to stress implicit biases become aggravated. The outcomes lead to inequalities in the health care provided by the doctors.

Knowing the connection between stress and implicit bias what interventions can help improve the present situation?

Researchers continue to look for unique and effective wellness programs for police officers that focus on addressing the issues of stress and biases. One approach that may be well suited for high-stress populations, such as law enforcement is mindfulness training.

Recent studies support the idea that mindfulness may target prejudice indirectly, by lessening our cognitive biases in ways that impact our judgments of other people. By reducing our susceptibility to cognitive biases, mindfulness could play a role in improving social relationships in our society.

An article by Jill Suttie, published in ‘The Greater Good Magazine,’ explored the scientific literature suggesting mindfulness training can help combat biases associated with prejudices.

While the research is ongoing, studies are beginning to show that mindfulness meditation practices serve as potent aids in the work of decreasing bias.

Alternatively, a 2014 review specifically looked at the impact of mindfulness for stress reduction. They found that “Of the 17 studies, 16 demonstrated positive changes in psychological or physiological outcomes related to anxiety and/or stress.” Despite the limitations of some of the studies, which included smaller sample sizes or no control group, the authors conclude that “mindfulness-based stress reduction appears to be a promising modality for stress management.”

Mindfulness practice is explicitly designed to foster non-judgmental awareness through meditation practice, wherein individuals learn to accept all feelings that come up in the present moment, with the knowledge that these feelings are “visitors” that come and go. This can help providers accept even prejudiced feelings and beliefs, without pushing them away, so they can be examined. Mindfulness programs may also be an “easier sell” as they directly focus on giving providers tools to combat the many stressors they face on a daily basis, and to promote resilience and well-being.

When practiced over time, mindfulness may help police officers develop their ability to:

  • more accurately read the emotions of suspects,
  • discern threats,
  • withstand high pressure encounters,
  • reduce on the job stress
  • Reduce the role of personal biases in policing practice.

Potentially, mindfulness training offers police officers, around the world, the opportunity to become less reactive and more aware.

What is Mindfulness and where is it being used? defines mindfulness as, “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us”. We all have this ability; however we need to learn how to access it.

Once we are able to master this skill we create for ourselves a gap that allows us to think, decide and respond without reaction.

Mindfulness training has been successfully embraced by a range of professions, from mental health to Silicon Valley, and including the US military. It is slowly finding its way into some police departments around the world:

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  • Toronto, Canada– Mindfulness was taught to Toronto’s police officers with an objective to help bring calm and clarity to their minds during active duty.
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  • England and Wales- Meditation lessons aimed at reducing stress were made available to 200,000 police staff in England and Wales after a trial across five forces found the practice improved average wellbeing, life satisfaction, resilience and work performance.

Dalai Lama Conducts First Dialogue with Western Police Officers to Discuss Compassionate Policing

From his residence in Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama engaged in a dialogue with nearly 1,000 police officers in the United Kingdom. The dialogue, which took place online on 8 July, was held with members of the London Metropolitan Police under the theme “Developing Compassion during Uncertain Times.”

Description: Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Rose offering his opening remarks at the start of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's conversation with members of the Metropolitan Police by video link from his residence in Dharamsala, HP, India on July 8, 2020. Photo by Ven Tenzin Jamphel

Responding to a question about the particularly sad scenes that many police encounter in their work, the Dalai Lama responded: “You mustn’t let the sight of violence make you demoralized. You have to be determined to bring about change. Destructive emotions are a result of ignorance, but with determination it can be overcome.”

Where to go from here?

Mindfulness training may seem a “soft” solution in the face of enduring structures of inequality and racism. But for a profession fraught with danger as is policing, it may be part of what is needed.

Mindfulness is not a silver bullet for solving all problems facing policing, however it has the potential to help police officers become better decision makers in high stress situations.

What’s your view around this high profile topic? Do you believe it is all about racism or do you think there is a bigger issue? Do you think mindfulness training can help? Comment below! I would love to hear your thoughts!

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