Unconscious Police – A Questionable Take on Questionable Killing

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There is no shortage of opinion and rationalization regarding the spate of questionable killings in recent weeks and years by law enforcement officers. Few would argue that they are, in any case, tragic losses of life. The most recent incidents have shaken the sensibilities of Americans of all backgrounds. Government and citizens alike are desperate to determine root cause and find real solutions. But in the rush to stem the seeming tide of questionable killings, is there a risk of inadvertently making the problem worse?

An ancient proverb I made up a few years ago, “Those who don’t know history won’t have a clue they’re repeating it.

In Police Chief Magazine, Tracey G. Gove, Captain, West Hartford, Connecticut, Police Department wrote this obligatory assertion: “First, police agencies should hire a diverse workforce and individuals who can police in an unbiased fashion.“

Who could disagree with that? And yet, how much has “Diversity Training” helped to accomplished that? Although Captain Grove’s assertion has both social and legal merit buttressed by 1960s federal legislation, it is clear that has not happened on a broad scale across America, even in many major metro areas. Certainly not in Ferguson, MO.

Within a decade of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the term “Diversity” seemed to have burst upon the scene out of nowhere. Clichés and mantras spread like wildfire, such as “Valuing Our Differences” and “Our Differences Are Our Strength!” Corporations jumped on board as “Diversity,” the differences-based philosophy of cultural harmony, became an unstoppable fashion and fad. It began driving almost every conversation on discrimination and inequity in the workplace. “Diversity” programs and consulting went viral in America before most people knew what viral meant. It even took on an ostensible “business case” to justify the related expenditures before spreading overseas. Diversity as a concept persists down to today, despite the failure to capture meaningful corporate buy in.

Today, the Diversity field is crumbling as a profession, struggling to find its second wind. In spite of its widespread acceptance in the last century, racial and sociocultural crisis abound. Even after corporate spending estimated in the billions of dollars on programs over the decades, some argue Diversity has accomplished little in the way of meaningful change in the overall standing of minorities and women in America or in diminishing crippling stereotypes…some even argue that acute differences-consciousness hurts many by distracting from the central issues of ongoing conscious discrimination and inequity.

Yet others might be realizing that our differences are killing us.

Lately, the nation is hearing less about Diversity as a solution, and instead a great deal about the hope and science of Implicit Bias — but with Diversity & Inclusion Consultants in the vanguard of its promotion. Has “Diversity” found new life in the Implicit Bias arena? If nothing else, it begs the question whether the same industry that failed to ameliorate corporate inequity should lead resolution of that same kind of crisis among municipal police departments.

Undaunted by previous decades of failure, with freshly minted Implicit Bias Tests in their tool box, Diversity & Inclusion Consultants appear to be capitalizing on the tragic circumstances in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island by generating the same kind of public relations “push” strategy as was done with corporate “Diversity” back in the 70s. Customers paid for it as overhead then. This time, the push is on to get taxpayers to fund Unconscious Bias consulting for police departments. If that doesn’t give you pause, perhaps this will.

Jump straight to the conclusion of the Police Chief Magazine article, and read what may be the most important and sobering sentence in the entire discussion. The author and Police Captain warns:

“Implicit bias research, although still in its infancy, has grown in popularity and may soon drive such discussions.”

THAT is a not so subtle dire warning from law enforcement community leadership about the ramifications of allowing policing to become subject to trendy but premature social prescriptions. Implicit Bias as a science is not merely in its infancy. The clear implication in that warning sentence is that despite decades of findings, Implicit Bias remediation is still largely experimentalIt is being tested in ways ranging from simple associative tests like the Harvard IAT, to the use of drugs in double-blind parallel group tests in which propranolol, a beta-adrenoceptor blocker, was used to reduce implicit racial bias by means of affecting beta-adrenoceptor receptors known to have an effect on emotional perception and memory. (It seems to work, by the way.) (Terbeck, et al., 2012, p. 423)

The associative style of experimental therapy is now being marketed in the same way prescription drugs have been sold to the public for many years, through opportunistic advertising and marketing that directs patients to self-diagnose and then ask their doctors to prescribe the brand name drug. Sadly, thousands ofAmericans die every year from prescription medications because they are either ill-equipped to manage them, or they suffer unknown, unanticipated fatal side effects.

The biggest challenge with the concept of not just discovering but treating “unconscious bias” is nicely summed up in the old baseball quote from Washington Senators catcher Cliff Blankenship, “You can’t hit what you can’t see.” Unconscious means what it means. Diversity Consultants may be licensed to administer branded Implicit Bias tests, and thus provide a valid warning that many decisions could indeed be pitched from the subconscious mound, out of the deep dark recesses of the mind.

However, like the legendary Walter Johnson’s fastball, too fast for any batter to see let alone hit, we are quickly being sold on the idea that perhaps many of our most important workplace decisions are being made for us (including police) by our subconscious as if we were innocent bystanders – even life and death decisions by law enforcement officials.

This presents a real rock&hard place dilemma for police kills — and for decisions not to shoot. Would an officer prefer to testify that s/he was fully cognizant, in the moment, 100% firing on all cylinders? Or that some unconscious cultural priming affected the decision at the moment of truth? Pittsburgh’s Chief of Police Cameron S. McLay in an open letter wrote, “The truth is, we have the power to choose our reactions to challenging circumstances.

The bad news? We don’t always get what we’d prefer. It seems to be correct that we often cannot see or even anticipate a subtly biased decision coming, even if we fully intend to be unbiased. The good news? The keyboard-based tests for just such unconsciousness are offered over the counter and free, or by Consultants across America and even across the pond.

What to do about the bias, however, is more complex than just validating its presence. This is where the waters get murky. As Diversity Consultants wade in over their depth, the market-driven “push” strategy for Implicit Bias consulting and training becomes problematic. Some are heavily promoting the idea of analyzing the bias trends of entire armed police departments, and then using the police as guinea pigs in these early stages of Implicit Bias experimentation.

More troubling yet, some are using unconscious bias testing as the bait, but switching to selling Diversity Training/Programs as the remediation therapy. That may constitute a dangerous fad that could get more people killed, not fewer, among both police and civilians long before academics determine the early version treatments and therapies are either ineffective or fatally flawed; and certainly long before any indications that D&I programs have any impact on Implicit Bias — other than negative impact.

Could police officers, once trained to recognize unconscious bias (if that’s possible) mistakenly assume their decisions are no longer affected by it, their stereotyping tendencies under control — and as a result make even worse mistakes in judgment because of that? The answer, frighteningly, is yes.

Cognitive studies have demonstrated that subjects who were made aware of cognitive errors in visual and memory perception actually got worse at estimating their own abilities to detect their own errors. “Metacognitive failures reveal potentially dangerous gaps between individuals’ estimations of their own abilities and the reality of limited cognitive and perceptual capacity. Here, we document a vast overestimation of change-detection ability. Subjects do, indeed, predict that they would notice changes that we have previously shown to be missed. Thus, we add “change blindness blindness” to the growing list of metacognitive errors documented by cognitive psychologists.”

Yes, even though test subjects were informed in advance by researchers that people tended to miss large changes in central elements between views of natural and artificial scenes, subjects still consistently and grossly “overestimated the degree to which changes would be detected, both by themselves and by others.”

Amazingly, after being informed of the phenomenon of change-blindness, people estimated that they would do better at recognizing changes as a result of their new awareness of change-blindness — and then they did worse — much worse.

Would anyone ever want that to be the case for the unconscious biases sitting in the squad car roaring up behind them with siren blaring and red lights flashing? Obviously not. But one question no one is asking: “How many questionable killings were attributed to officers who had been educated about the existence and possibilities of unconscious bias in shootings in advance of the incidents?”

Despite the current high level of public desperation to do something, anything to resolve the issue of questionable killing, experimenting with the “unconscious realm” may be dangerous territory in which to seek quick solutions. Governments are obligated to protect both their police and the citizens they’re supposed to protect, not experiment on them in the out chance they may solve the problem of unconscious bias by blind luck or even an educated guess. In a 2008 discussion of stereotype intractability, Hiroshi Miyawki Sasaki assessed that, “even the most optimistic (e.g., Blair & Banaji, 1996; Devine & Monteith, 1999, Lepore & Brown, 1999) generally accept findings (e.g., Devine, 1989) which reveal that without the opportunity for conscious processing to override stereotype-activation and application, we may unknowingly use automatic stereotypes to guide (both covert and overt) behavior.”

Said by another often cited and renowned researcher, Yale Professor John Bargh, Director of the ACME Lab, “…the relevant research evidence largely contradicts this rosy picture” of what bias psychologists call stereotype controllability especially for stereotypes of African Americans. Highly credible and well known studies have shown “that the African American stereotype is so efficient that it can become activated even with subliminal presentation of group features, that is, with no conscious attentional processing needed.” No current research contradicts that powerful assessment of the challenges facing police, but certainly not police alone. Most importantly, the Police Chief article accurately points out, “The researchers cautioned, however, that there is currently no evidence to show that the elimination of bias during computer simulation will necessarily transfer to decisions made by officers in the field.

Can we legitimately bifurcate bias into that simplistic binary of either “conscious” or “unconscious” and begin prescribing wholesale associative-based therapies to members of one of the most crucial but unquestionably most challenged public services in America? Importantly, police aren’t engaged in passive cubical farm customer service work, or loan officers pushing paper around a desk. Experiments, especially failed experiments (like Diversity), could have far more serious consequences. Without taking sides, from the standpoint of organizational policy, there are seven important questions that could be of interest before policing leaps in to the increasingly popular Implicit Bias trend. (Corporations, take note.)

Should local governments think twice before exposing armed police officers to psychological testing and experimental training that could risk decreasing their confidence in on-duty life and death decisions for themselves and those they are charged to protect and serve?

Should local governments think twice before giving courts, review boards and grand juries one more option for limiting accountability and rationalizing questionable killings?

Should local government solicitors think twice before creating even greater fear and cultural mistrust of public servants by providing test results that may show that individually or collectively the police force tests positive for bias that could potentially lead to unconsciously committing questionable killing(s)?

Should local governments think twice before allowing Implicit Bias testing that creates discoverable evidence of having hired a preponderance of applicants and recruits with one or more consistent unconscious and implicit stereotype biases?

Should local governments think twice before allowing Diversity & Inclusion Consultants to administer unproven (in the long term) psychological therapies to entire police departments?

Should police officers themselves think twice before submitting to experimental “tinkering” with their individual psychological processes?

Should anyone, African American or otherwise, think twice before demanding Implicit Bias testing and experimental training or therapy for police officers?

Without a doubt, the public and social pressure for a response may feel overwhelming, even to the federal government. The looming threat of immensely costly civil litigation may add tremendously to the pressure to respond in some tangible way. The minds of good hearted people everywhere scream, “Do something!” But Newton’s Third Law hasn’t changed: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

This isn’t a matter of getting people jobs, promotions or equal pay. This is the life and death matter of the questionable use of lethal force or killing. What if the professionals who are easing out of Diversity & Inclusion and opting for the unconscious realm achieve the same level of success they did over the past twenty years of Diversity Training? If so, then questionable killing along with related unrest and litigation may continue unabated for the foreseeable future, and could even get worse. I’m advising clients to tread lightly on the thin ice of Implicit Bias testing and remediation.

There is one key to short-circuiting stereotypes of all kinds, however, and even bias psychologists agree on the answer. We will examine practical ways to incorporate that into our professional and social lives, as well as pursue further discussion of #QuestionableKilling in future articles, here and on the InclusiveWorks® website.


Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Jones – All Rights Reserved

Diversity: The Invention of a Concept by Peter Wood
Encounter Books • 2003
Reviewed by George C. Leef
Implicit Bias and Law Enforcement
By Tracey G. Gove, Captain, West Hartford, Connecticut, Police Department

John A. Bargh, 1999, In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 361-382), NY: Guilford Press

Change Blindness Blindness: The Metacognitive Error of Overestimating Change-detection Ability
Daniel T. Levin, Nausheen Momen, and Sarah B. Drivdahl
Kent State University, Kent, OH, USA

An Intervention for Stereotype Automatically in Therapist-trainees: A Pilot Study in Implicit Multicultural Social Cognition
Hiroshi Miyawki Sasaki, May 2008, p. 29)

State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014
Cheryl Staats, Research Associate II
KirwanInstitute |

State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2013, p. 4
Cheryl Staats, Research Associate
with contributions from Charles Patton, Graduate Research Associate
KirwanInstitute |

Propranolol Reduces Implicit Negative Racial Bias. Terbeck, S., Kahane, G., McTavish, S., Savulescu, J., Cowen, P. J., & Hewstone, M. (2012). Psychopharmacology, 222(3), 419-424. “Relative to placebo, propranolol significantly lowered heart rate and abolished implicit racial bias without affecting the measure of explicit racial prejudice.”

Managing People In Tomorrow’s World
I Almost Killed That Kid” by Peter Tollini
Posted on December 9, 2014

Do Something!” Links to featured article on the Pulse “Social Impact” channel, “3 Guideposts for New Dialogue on Race Relations” (Dec. 13, 2014). David B. Grinberg is Senior Advisor for Strategic Communications, EEOC, U.S. Government.

Cameron S. McLay, Chief of Police, City of Pittsburgh
December 23, 2014


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