Author: Jessica Terrizzi
Published: Sep 23 2022
Last Edit: Sep 23 2022
(7 min read)
One of the most contentious social issues at present is the relationship between police officers and minority communities. Specifically, concerns about police use of excessive force were brought to the forefront after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Following the deaths of several other Black men during interactions with the police, a higher demand has been put on law enforcement organizations to address issues such as racial profiling and implicit biases. To some, it seems that police officers have been put under a microscope when it comes to their interactions with individuals of diverse backgrounds; while to others, it seems that not enough is being done to reduce police use of excessive force. On one side, I have heard officers express anxiety at being perceived as racist while they are on duty, and some have shared frustration at experiences such as being recorded while they are working. One officer even explained that some of their colleagues are less likely to write tickets to racial minority individuals due to a fear of being accused of racial profiling. On the other side, I have heard individuals from minority communities express fear that they are going to be profiled or treated unfairly by the police. Based on these differing concerns, it is evident that steps need to be taken to improve relations between police officers and racial minority groups, and to open a dialogue regarding this issue. In order to accomplish these goals, it is widely suggested that police officers be required to participate in diversity trainings through their departments.
Diversity trainings are intended to improve the multicultural skills of those who participate in them, and to enhance inclusion in various settings (Royall et al., 2022). I have seen diversity trainings take many different forms, including lectures/seminars, group discussions, and online modules that officers must complete in their own time. These programs are available within a variety of organizations and cover topics such as equity, microaggressions, and cultural differences. The enhancement of multicultural skills is promoted through self-reflection on one’s biases, education on stereotypes, and the discussion of individual perspectives. For example, The Ceceilyn Miller Institute explains that their organization’s training focuses on examining racial prejudice and discrimination, educating individuals about the harmful effects that these negative perceptions can have, and providing officers with skills to effectively work with the members of their communities.
When answering this question, it is important to think about implicit biases and how they affect us. By definition, an implicit bias is a negative assumption that someone has about a specific individual, or group of individuals, without necessarily realizing it. First of all, everyone has implicit biases (not just police officers), and because police officers are human, they are vulnerable to making mistakes based on these biases. Implicit biases are problematic because they can affect someone’s perceptions of others, and can have a strong influence on their decision-making processes at the subconscious level (Staats, 2016). This is particularly important to keep in mind when it comes to police officers, due to the stressful nature of the job, and the fact that officers interact with individuals of diverse backgrounds every day. In general, when someone is put in a high stakes situation without time to think through a decision, they usually rely on whatever information is most readily available to them (sometimes, this can be stereotypes, or information from previous experiences). This is especially true in situations that are considered ambiguous, or unclear (Spencer et al., 2016); So, for example, if an officer is unsure of whether or not someone is holding a gun, they will likely default to their implicit biases. As far as relying on previous experiences, according to a PEW research study (2017), 87% of officers reported having experienced a stressful interaction with a member of the Black community (likely due to the highly publicized incidents of police use of excessive force with minority populations). These stressful experiences may affect the way in which police officers interpret future interactions with members of this community, whether they realize it or not.
It’s important for police officers to understand the communities that they serve, and the individuals that they encounter in order to do their jobs effectively. If police officers do not have a basic understanding of different cultures, they may misinterpret certain behaviors or interactions, or they may not be as empathetic. For example, someone’s way of communicating may be perceived as aggressive, when it is actually just their cultural norm, which could lead to the use of excessive force (Moon et al., 2018). Additionally, communities need to be able to trust the police officers that serve them. If the public does not believe that police officers have the multicultural skills necessary to accept and respect others, then citizens are not going to trust in the police’s ability to protect them. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice (n.d.) indicates that when communities trust the police, communication between law enforcement and civilians is enhanced, potentially leading to solutions to issues such as neighborhood crime. Ultimately, this improved police-community communication allows officers to do their jobs more effectively.
87% of officers reported having experienced a stressful interaction with a member of the Black community.
Often, when diversity training is brought up to officers, the idea is met with a groan or the statement, “as if we don’t have enough of these trainings”. One officer indicated that having to complete these programs, on top of other required trainings, can be extremely overwhelming. Unfortunately, issues like this can make police officers resistant to receiving these trainings, especially if they are seen as a waste of time (Royall et al., 2022). Evidence also suggests that, in general, police officers can be defensive when it comes to topics such as implicit biases (Moon et al., 2018), making it even more difficult to effectively reach this population. This defensiveness may be attributed to movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the perception among officers that their safety is not being taken seriously (Moon et al., 2018). Critics have also pointed out logistical concerns with the use of diversity trainings and emphasized that short term trainings are not effective for long term change, these programs are not fully effective in reducing implicit biases, and people are generally resistant to required trainings (Dobbin & Kalev, 2018). Johnson (2017) further notes that there is not a significant amount of published research backing the effectiveness of these trainings, calling into question the utility of these programs.
While the concerns raised about diversity trainings are understandable, it is also extremely important that police officers are educated on this topic. For this reason, Royall et al. (2022) explain that diversity trainings need to be improved through strategies such as using a collaborative format, and ensuring that they are both ongoing and adaptable. Russo and Rzemyk (2021) and Stark (2018) further suggest that police departments should conduct tests of implicit biases, as well as climate surveys to assess a variety of domains such as officers’ understanding of diversity related topics, their reported job satisfaction, and officers’ knowledge of de-escalation techniques. Research also suggests that diversity trainings are more effective when factors such as participant empathy levels are taken into account, and when participants are prompted to take the perspectives of others throughout the program (Lindsey et al., 2014). Johnson (2017) takes a more drastic approach and suggests that instead of receiving trainings, police officers should be required to interact with members of minority communities more frequently in order to decrease biases. While there are several potential issues with this suggestion, Johnson (2017) posits that this method could potentially reduce police officer biases, while improving community trust in law enforcement.
Research [...] suggests that diversity trainings are more effective when factors such as participant empathy levels are taken into account, and when participants are prompted to take the perspectives of others throughout the program (Lindsey et al., 2014).
Police officer relations with marginalized groups is a prevalent, and important, social issue. Officers should have a background knowledge on diversity, and should be provided with constructive trainings regarding this topic. While current diversity trainings have several criticisms, it seems that there are ways in which these programs can be improved to effectively reach police officers. Ultimately, through improving the ways in which diversity trainings are delivered to law enforcement organizations, police-minority relations may begin to make much needed improvements.
Jessica Terrizzi, M.A.
Ph.D Student in Counseling Psychology
Jess is a 4th year doctoral student at the University of Akron. She has a strong interest in law enforcement due to her family’s extensive background in policework. Through experiences with family and friends who are in this field, Jess has recognized a need for applying psychology to law enforcement through both research and the development of wellness programs. Jess also has an interest in researching both masculinity and trauma, and plans on working with police officers in the clinical setting.
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