Researchers at Washington State University in Spokane have analyzed well over 100 police deadly force encounters captured on dash cam video or observed in a simulator. That academic research has now turned in a “counter bias” training program.
The course grew out of a series of attention-getting papers on the dynamics of deadly police encounters including racial factors published by Professor Lois James and colleagues.
"We have two kinds of major findings from our research in the lab,” James said. “One is that officers when you hook them up neurophysiologically -- and also when you test them using implicit bias tests -- we find they tend to quite strongly associate African American suspects with increased levels of threat."
The other finding runs almost the opposite.
"When we test them in the simulator, they tend to be a bit more hesitant to shoot African-American suspects versus white or Hispanic suspects, for example."
She and her co-authors including WSU Professor Bryan Vila, a former cop and police supervisor, said the caution most likely comes from officers wanting to avoid the public backlash when a minority suspect gets shot. And they don’t think officers are just trying to be PC because they’re being observed in a simulator.
Training on the Coast
This year, James and her husband Stephen decided to take the research a step further, which is how Lois found herself leading a training session for frontline officers from the Astoria and Warrenton, Oregon, police departments.
"I'm one of those researchers who really believes that if you are not going to take your research and try to make what you are studying better, you really don't have any business doing it,” James said.
Last week the Jameses ran a small group of officers through several dozen realistic scenarios, including domestic disturbances, traffic stops, a robbery and suspicious person calls. The officers take turns standing in front of a portable movie screen. They are armed with a pistol modified to shoot a laser pulse.
"Astoria Police," an officer shouted at a big actor in undershirt on screen. The angry man retreated around a hallway corner dragging a woman by the neck. "Let go of the lady. Sir, come out here!" commanded the officer to no avail.
The scenario ended in a burst of loud, simulated gunfire as the domestic abuser shot the female and was in turn shot as he turned his handgun on the responding officer.
In this domestic disturbance scenario, as in all the cases, the simulator screen shows the officer's point of view. White, black and Hispanic actors, roughly life-size on screen, play suspects, victims and bystanders.
Danger cues over race
The police department let me sit in on two scenarios and debriefs. In both simulations, the officer had mere seconds to size up the scene before one of the actors pulled a gun.
A moment of hesitation and the officer would have been pretend shot instead of the suspect. But out on the streets, hesitation is just what Warrenton Officer Jim Pierce said he’s seeing more of. Pierce participated in the training.
"There may be some slower reaction time, but I think that's been brought onto us over the last couple years by all of the media presentation of law enforcement shootings around the country,” Pierce said.
Unfortunately, James said there is no reliable national dataset on deadly force interactions with sufficient detail to prove or disprove Pierce’s perception that officers in real life are getting killed because they are hesitating more.
The goal of this counter bias training is to get officers to look past skin color, gender or a person’s clothing choices and concentrate on danger cues… things such as body language, hand positions and furtive movements toward a possible weapon.
"People give certain body languages when they are getting ready to attack another individual or a police officer," Pierce said. “This (training) helps bring out those body languages, setting aside anything else -- race, religion, sex or anything else."
Part of the ‘national conversation’
These coastal Oregon officers were the first paying customers to experience the portable simulator training program developed by the WSU-Spokane researchers. Astoria Police Chief Brad Johnston said no particular incident prompted him to schedule the training. Rather the "national conversation about policing" and justice was on his mind.
"We are an interesting community that is transitioning from a very natural resources-based economy to a tourism economy,” Johnston said. “So we are not only engaging those folks who live here but also those folks who come here to recreate. As a result, we do see a very diverse population coming through."
Johnston said most existing law enforcement training about recognizing and balancing internal biases is classroom-based. He preferred to book this new simulator-based, "dynamic" approach. The four-hour sessions cost $250 per officer plus a baseline fee.
The Astoria Police Department has 16 sworn officers on the force, which the chief said are all white except for one Hispanic.
The officers there, like many others across the Northwest, were wearing black bands across their badges to remember fallen Tacoma Police Officer Jake Gutierrez. He was shot dead while responding to a domestic disturbance call in Tacoma, Washington, on November 30.
WSU is marketing the implicit bias and deadly force judgment decision making training under the name CBTsim, short for Counter Bias Training Simulation.
A competing training company called Calibre Press has scheduled a one-day counter bias seminar for Boise-area officers in January. The "Balancing our Biases" course in Meridian, Idaho, includes discussion of managing prejudices, how the unconscious works and "systemic and individual solutions."