How to tackle implicit bias with immersive community policing

Law enforcement administrators should require officer immersion into minority and marginalized groups


By Eric J. Beatty, P1 Contributor

College campuses across the country are embarking on monumental journeys to ensure the rights of students are protected and supported. As college campuses investigate topics involving inclusivity, race and gender, it is imperative for law enforcement to ensure officers receive appropriate training and realize that neither implicit nor explicit biases should interfere with the oath each officer is sworn to uphold.  

Departments must quickly manage officers with explicit bias. Officers with explicit bias have no place in law enforcement. Departments need to identify and separate these officers.

SF Police Chief Greg Suhr waves while marching with a number of his cops in the 44th annual Gay Pride parade Sunday, June 29, 2014. (AP Image)
SF Police Chief Greg Suhr waves while marching with a number of his cops in the 44th annual Gay Pride parade Sunday, June 29, 2014. (AP Image)

Implicit biases – which refer to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our actions and decisions in an unconscious manner – are more challenging to address within a department. Each officer, across all ranks, comes with a unique background that influences their implicit biases – even those with established stances that support inclusiveness, equality and impartiality. In order to limit the presentation of this type of bias, when responding to situations involving the LGBTQ or other marginalized communities, officers should be given the opportunity to understand, recognize and respect their implicit biases.

Bias inside and outside the rank and file

A recent study by the Urban Institute found that 71 percent of surveyed LGBTQ youth (primarily high school age) had interacted with law enforcement. From the respondent’s point of view, many of those interactions involved questionable tactics by police. While this extensive study examined a wide variety of LGBTQ issues, the major factor for campus law enforcement is learning to foster successful interactions with members of the LGBTQ community that limit, or relieve, the possibility of involving implicit bias.

For law enforcement leaders, an aggravating aspect is that bias against the LGBTQ community permeates throughout the ranks of police departments internally too. A 2013 study by the Williams Institute reported that over 90 percent of officers associated with TCOPS, an organization for transgender law enforcement officers, had negative interactions within their respective departments. The Williams Institute research also found that a significant number of officers who identify as non-LGBTQ admit to having discriminatory opinions toward the LGBTQ community.

This is a significant problem for law enforcement. Not only does the LGBTQ community feel they are not fairly policed, but studies show that law enforcement has biases toward the LGBTQ community, including their brothers and sisters in blue.

How to reduce the effects of bias

Historically, departments across the country have attempted to reduce bias by providing cultural diversity and unbiased-policing training. The purpose of this approach is to educate officers regarding different minority and marginalized groups. In most situations, this training provides only a classroom version of the biases these groups experience. Additionally, the training discussions end once the training days are complete.

While this type of training may increase awareness, it does little to influence an officer’s implicit bias. In order to reduce implicit biases, officers need to better understand and appreciate the groups discussed in their annual training. Officers need weekly, if not daily, exposure to these groups in order to provide the greatest opportunity for success.

Unfortunately, removing all bias from policing is nearly impossible. So, how does an agency increase awareness of implicit biases and decrease bias exhibited in the actions of police officers?   

Law enforcement administrators should require officer immersion into minority and marginalized groups. Immersion occurs when officers participate in activities that place them within groups that they have implicit bias against. As officers interact with these groups, they gain a better understanding of the people within them and begin to see each individual’s characteristics, instead of perceived group stereotypes.

Because dynamics exist that may reduce the trust between these groups and police officers, implementation of immersion community policing tactics needs to be a well-planned, department-wide process. First, a department needs to identify the implicit biases possessed by each officer. Then, the department should pinpoint groups within the community where officers can develop relationships. As officers immerse themselves within these groups, trust between the group, the officer and subsequently the department can hopefully begin to improve.

For such an approach to be successful, it is critical for departments to have buy-in from officers at all levels. Initially, some officers will be resistant, especially because this interaction may be outside their comfort zone. Instead of speaking to the same people in their community, officers will be encouraged to reach out to other groups – groups they have an inherit bias to – to begin building a level of understanding.

Officers must understand that their respective departments are not trying to change how they feel or interact with a group outside of work. Immersion community policing simply increases each officer’s appreciation of the diversity within their community and reduces the likelihood of implicit bias being brought forward during professional encounters on the job.

Most, if not all, departments already require officers to act according to the department’s mission and code of conduct. While there are questions about how an officer’s off-duty conduct can be regulated, there are few questions about how an officer’s conduct on-duty can be controlled. There should be no question that a department can require officers to police in an immersion community policing manner that compliments the department’s current policing philosophy.

The benefits of immersion community policing will result in improvement for not only police departments, but also the communities they serve. Officers will gain a better understanding of groups and those groups will have the opportunity to interact with police officers in a positive and non-enforcement environment.

Immersion community policing builds upon traditional community policing. As police and the groups develop better appreciation for one another, there could be exponentially larger benefits observed. For example, an increase in crime tips, reduced citizen complaints, improved trust, and the creation of safer communities.  Additionally, officers immersed with specific groups will likely promote their learned appreciation to others, which further increases awareness and understanding within the department.

Personal endeavor

Over the last year, I have been using the immersion community policing philosophy presented in this article. Even though I am a campus law enforcement officer on a liberal arts campus with an active LGBTQ community, I had very little knowledge of the LGBTQ community. My ignorance prevented me from engaging with and increasing my appreciation for this group. So, I made a conscious effort to engage with the LGBTQ community by attending brown-bag lunches and other events.

My experience provided both failures and successes. I quickly learned that the LGBTQ community did not necessarily trust me at face value. I was not part of their group and felt like most people enjoy being around others with similar perspectives and life experiences.

Like many police officers, I quickly realized I have very little knowledge of the transgender population. I thought it would be helpful to create an awareness guide or bulletin for law enforcement specifically centered on topics campus police officers should be aware of when interacting with a transgender person. I spent two unsuccessful months trying to find someone to speak with me regarding this topic. It was not until I met with a campus employee devoted to enhancing an inclusive community that I realized I had not established rapport with the community members I hoped to serve. The LGBTQ community members did not know me and my job as a police officer did not carry any credibility. I do not think it was a lack of trust, but more a fear of the unknown that prevented the initial interactions from both sides.

Fortunately, over time, I developed relationships with four staff members who I can have frank conversations with about how law enforcement interacts with the LGBTQ community. Contrary to what I thought I would find, these four individuals had not experienced negative interactions with law enforcement. Just like my ignorance about the LGBTQ community, I realized there was not a fear of police officers specifically. It was more a fear of the perception of law enforcement.

By establishing these relationships, I feel these individuals and I have successfully been able to develop our appreciation for one another. To my surprise, I was even referred to as “a good one [police officer]” during a public presentation. I now have friends in the LGBTQ community who I can have lunch with or call to discuss sensitive questions. The initial relationships have increased my credibility throughout much of the LGBTQ community.

Moving forward

Police departments across the country have successfully implemented community policing projects. In many situations, officers engage individuals and organizations familiar to them in their community policing efforts. Redirecting those efforts to ensure officers are engaging with unfamiliar groups that are the focus of their implicit bias will provide immersion community policing the best opportunity for success.

Officers should be asked to interact with groups they have little knowledge about to increase their awareness and enhance their ability to address issues professionally and with respect towards each individual’s characteristics. Immersion will reduce barriers, increase appreciation for one another, and most importantly decrease incidents of bias policing.


About the author
Lt. Eric Beatty has 15 years of law enforcement experience in higher education. He is a proactive, visionary leader dedicated to organizational development, community policing, professional standards and accountability. Since completing his graduate work in human resource management, Eric has been committed to addressing implicit bias and developing positive cultures within departments.

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