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Justice Department Orders Mandatory Implicit Bias Training for 28,000 Agents, Prosecutors – Will it Make a Difference?

FBI officials in Ferguson, Missouri. youtube

FBI officials in Ferguson, Missouri. YouTube

The U.S. Department of Justice has announced that thousands of employees will undergo mandatory training to ensure that subconscious biases don’t influence their decisions.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates sent out a memo Monday to over 28,000 law enforcement agents and prosecutors notifying them of the department’s new training program that will help officials recognize and address implicit bias.

“The Department of Justice has a responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that our criminal justice system is fair and impartial,” Yates said in a statement. “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 that we provide implicit bias training to all of our prosecutors and law enforcement agents.”

Social scientists have defined implicit bias as the automatic associations people make between certain groups of people and the stereotyped attitudes or behaviors of that group of people. The subject has become a hot-button issue among social activists in the wake of a string of high-profile police shootings of unarmed African-American men in the country.

The Justice Department has recommended the bias training for many police departments found to be guilty of racial discrimination but never enforced the instruction for its own workers until now.

Training will begin over the next few weeks for around 5,800 prosecutors working in U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the nation and 23,000 agents affiliated with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. Marshals Service. Law enforcement agent teachings will be based on the Fair & Impartial Policing model developed by Dr. Lorie Fridell, former director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum. The University of South Florida criminology professor is an expert on racially biased policing and developed the perspective based on social psychologists’ findings on human bias.

A large number of studies have linked implicit racial bias to the disproportionate rates of traffic stops, arrests, incarcerations and death sentences for African-Americans in the penal system.

Many researchers believe this is because Black people of all ages are perceived as being more of a threat. A recent University of Iowa study found that Black children as young as 5 are associated with violence and criminality. White undergraduate students were more likely to mislabel a toy as a weapon after seeing an image of a Black child.

“Our findings suggest that youth may be insufficient to disarm the threat associated with black men,” the study, published in the Psychological Science journal in February, said. “Implicit biases commonly observed for black men appear to generalize even to young black boys.”

And implicit bias is not unique to the criminal justice system.

Researchers have also implicated latent prejudices for racial disparities in education and health care.

U.S. Department of Education data released earlier this month showed that Black students from kindergarten to 12th grade were nearly four times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.

The Civil Rights Data Collection also revealed that students in schools with high African-American populations were more likely to have inexperienced teachers and provide less challenging math and science courses, such as calculus and physics.

In the area of medicine, implicit racial biases have been shown to negatively impact the quality of care for Black patients.

Physicians often spend less time with their African-American patients, reducing their confidence in the doctor and any course of treatments the doctor may recommend.

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