By Patrick Yost
When Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley stood before a group of Black Lives Matter protesters on the steps of the Morgan County Courthouse in June he promised that the sheriff’s office and its deputies would work toward becoming “more a guardian culture than a warrior culture.”
To that end more than a dozen officers last Thursday participated in a 90 minute webinar presented by the Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute.
The webinar, entitled “Law enforcement personnel and implicit bias during interactions with citizens” provided awareness to frontline officers on ways to both recognize and deal with bias during interactions with citizens.
“There is always some level of implicit bias,” said the webinar leader Jack Ryan, an attorney and former law enforcement officer. “Don’t we owe it to our profession to figure it out?”
Markley said he was taking a long view on law enforcement and culture changes he thinks are imperative for an enduring institution. ‘’This is probably the only way that law enforcement is going to survive given the state we are in,” he said.
The class focused on training officers to understand some bias based on appearance, including race, sex, wealth, vehicle type and a host of other preconceived points of partiality.
“Everyone has a bias in some form or fashion,” said webinar leader George Dalton. “Having a bias doesn’t make us a bad person. It may be viewed as an attack on our character, which is not the case.”
Participants heard several anecdotal stories from the three leaders regarding bias and how it had negative impact both on policing and on investigative evidence collection. Modern police, said leader Thomas Bullock, should not let bias “cloud your judgement.”
The underlying theme during the class was one of awareness. A power point presentation during the webinar stated “The first step in ensuring that ‘implicit bias’ doesn’t impact conduct and decision is to acknowledge that we have a distorting lens.”
“Implicit bias, however, incurs in the unconscious state of mind,” said Dalton.
Dalton surmised that there are four things “in our live that shape our thinking.”
“Family, religion, our peer group and mass media.”
Morgan County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Keith Howard said the webinar forced participants to examine their thought process in interactions with the public. “We will not improve and become more professional if we do not challenge that which makes us feel uncomfortable.”
Markley said the class also reinforced that there is an implicit bias by the public against police officers. “As we recognize we have bias the community has to recognize their bias as well,” he said.
Deputy Tiffany Alliston agreed. “I think that people perceive that we are a lot more biased,” she said. “That, in itself, is a bias.”
Deputy John Sims said the webinar enforced that a person can collect a bias from an experience. “We deal with the public everyday,” he said. “We’ve got to get past our preconceived conceptions.”
Markley said recognizing bias does not exclude officers and investigators from using wisdom and learned skill from recognizing patterns during the course of an investigation. But he also said recognizing bias enables an officer to see a larger picture when investigating an incident.
But, Dalton said. “it’s not going to be easy.”
“You’ve got to be intentional about it.”
Markley said, in Morgan County at least, the office will continue to learn and adapt. “We’re going to have to make the changes ourselves.”