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Can bias training change police behavior? WSU researcher says yes

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Many policing agencies in the U.S. provide implicit bias training to officers in hopes that will help them in their interactions with the public.

Critics say that training hasn’t yet proven to lead to better behavior. But a Washington State University researcher says she has evidence that it does.

Lois James is the assistant dean of research for the WSU College of Nursing. She has studied bias in policing for several years.

Her latest study involved officers in Sacramento, California. She examined footage from their body cameras both before and after they received bias training, to see if there was some change in behavior.

“Are they introducing themself? Are they greeting a person? Are they explaining the purpose of the encounter, showing concern, showing empathy?

“We were especially interested in are there any disparities in how officers interact or treat different types of people reduced after the training and the big disparity reduction that we saw was around how often officers were interacting with people suffering homelessness," she said.

James says the footage showed officers who participated in the training did show more sensitivity in public interactions, particularly with people who were homeless. And, she says, those officers drew fewer citizen complaints about discrimination.

“I think that this study has shown, in a fairly modest way, it has certainly shown that implicit bias training can have these positive impacts," she said. “I certainly do not want to overstep this and say that because we found this in a sample of officers in this particular department that implicit bias training is going to work everywhere. We’re a long way from that.”

But, she says, it does provide the first tangible evidence that bias training can have some benefit.

James’ team’s research was funded by the National Institute of Justice. Their findings were published in "Policing: An International Journal."

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.