A few years ago, William Bratton, former commissioner of the NYPD and the man responsible for exporting “broken windows” and stop-and-frisk across the country, went to a play that he enjoyed immensely. In the production, two teenagers named Emmett Till and Anne Frank have a sincere conversation about the discrimination they’d faced.
Not long after, a couple hundred recruits filed into a darkened auditorium at the New York City Police Academy to watch the play, Anne and Emmett, as part of an initiative to make cops more empathetic. The effort was appropriately illuminating: “I definitely knew the story of Anne Frank,” one white recruit told NPR. “I didn’t know the story on Emmett Till, though.”
Bratton’s play to blow young recruits’ minds through the transcendent power of theater was short-lived, an experimental blip in police departments’ history of combating institutional racism using whatever corporate tactics happen to be all the rage.
In this case, a mandatory exercise in empathy for the victims of white supremacy came towards the end of 2015, a year to the month after a white officer shot Michael Brown. That year, about one in every 65 young black men killed in America had been shot by police. Like most large and clumsy organizations, police forces implement reformist programming only when the public complains. And the optics, at the time of Bratton’s experiment, weren’t great.
Anti-racist and diversity initiatives are a haphazard business; departments are left to determine how to combat racism on their own with little federal oversight. But since mass media made images of brutality accessible in the ‘60s, the people who police the cops have been puzzling over what combination of 20-minute Powerpoint presentations and role-playing exercises will stamp out racial bias once and for all.
So-called diversity trainings were trendy in the late ‘60s, and after the LA uprising, and then again during the Obama administration, when federal employees were required to submit to the practice’s newest iteration, softened of its overtly racial connotations and referred to as “anti-bias” training instead. And each era’s programs are shaped by the recommendations of think tanks, behavioral researchers, and corporate managers—regardless of how effective they are.
For the first few decades after the Civil Rights movement, police trainings held the line that something as simple as a good cultural education was all the cops needed to stop hosing down protesters. Recruits were shuttled into conference rooms and given presentations by various members of communities who weren’t white, who explained their customs and habits to the occupying force. Occasionally an academic or language expert would drop in, too.
Even today, designated ambassadors from specific ethnic communities sometimes teach police how to enter their neighborhoods and not get too freaked out about their child-rearing habits or customs. In one part of California with a large Southeast asian population, for instance, officers were taught that multiple tattoos on Laotian men didn’t necessarily correlate to gangs, and that a practice called “coining”—putting warm coins on sick children—didn’t warrant jailing parents for abuse.
The theory that a little more immersion would “sensitize” police to “minority” concerns—and let fundamentally good cops be good—has stuck around. As a Samoan officer who contracted experts to teach cops about different customs in California told the LA Times: “You take an upper-middle-class white male that’s been raised in an upper-middle class environment, and you train that individual in the academy and bring him into a ghetto area...this kid has not had that exposure.”
Oddly, giving those upper-middle-class white men that exposure and training them how to eat with chopsticks didn’t solve police brutality. We don’t hear about it as much these days, but more Americans were killed by cops last month that during the same period last year. But as long as there has been state-funded agencies with a problem, there have been people trying to get paid to solve them.
In the ‘70s, as therapeutic experts embraced feel-good encounters like psychodrama therapy (also known as role-playing), some departments were swept up in the movement and added intimate exercises to the instructional efforts. “Encounter groups” and consciousness-raising exercises were implemented across the country, swapping the lectures of earlier trainings for “rap sessions” where cops and black teenagers would open their hearts, unfiltered, to each other. In some states like California, cops had dinner with students one-on-one or role-played run-ins with the police. Such trainings tended to be designed by consultants or academics, who used nearly identical programs in public schools and corporate boardrooms.
In 1970, former NYPD officer-turned-criminologist Donald Bimstein wrote a vivid defense of the practice in a policing publication, positioning encounter groups as a crucial complement to less experimental community relations initiatives: “Merely telling or explaining can never carry the impact exerted by experiencing,” he wrote. “It will be a rare officer who can emerge from these sessions unchanged in any way.” But though the idea of transforming the police through a little honesty and goodwill held traction until the ‘90s, in many places encounter groups simply made populations more hostile towards each other.
For the people who designed these programs, the hostility was an indicator that perhaps being told they were racist was bad for cops’ morale. Through the ‘90s a number of papers and studies suggested that the police needed their own, internal programming rather than bringing “minority” leaders in to teach.
In a deep analysis of “race relations” and so-called “cultural awareness” initiatives, a pair of criminologists noted that focusing on guilt and “white privilege” wasn’t working for the police, and that some anti-racist trainings could “include exercises that can be somewhat demeaning to participants.” Rather than focus on racism, they argued, forces should emphasize an “inclusive intercultural approach” that left space for discussion of “Euroamerican cultures” and hinged on what they considered a more practical, colorblind “awareness” of different demographic groups.
Today that “cultural awareness” training has been reconfigured as “implicit bias,” a school of diversity training based on the idea that everyone is racist and sexist, capable of “discriminating without knowing you’re discriminating.” The only thing to do is to become more well-acquainted with your subconscious feelings, and do your best to acknowledge and curb them.
Tony Greenwald of the University of Washington started his “implicit association” research in the mid-90s, in part because he wasn’t buying the idea that some people were bigots while others were just fine: He developed a five-minute speed test where participants paired rapid-fire images (flowers, insects, white and black faces) with words. The test is available online, and predictably, about 75% of people who’ve taken it are more likely to pair white faces with nice ideas.
The rise of this blameless iteration of diversity trainings has been swift: It’s now used to make people less racist everywhere from the NYPD to Facebook. Though it’s still unknown just how effective unconscious bias trainings are, tech companies have put up to $50 million dollars into the “anti-bias” sector over the last few years.
“Implicit bias” trainings were mandated for federal employees during the Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton posited them as a solution to police brutality when she she was campaigning. It was implemented in Ferguson in 2014 and is now required for many large urban police departments. Criminologists like Lorie Fridell, of Fair and Impartial Policing, travel the country clicking through Powerpoints and staging fake phone calls to teach the cops how not to jump to the wrong conclusions. But even such soft bias training puts many police on the defensive: “Role play away,” one cop told NPR. “I’ll jump through hoops if that’s what you want me to know. But I would much rather be out there on the street trying to police.”
There are a number of critics of this sort of training in academia, too: Destiny Peery, a criminologist, has written extensively on the practice and worries that emphasizing the unconscious, personal practice of bias has “come to the exclusion of discussion about system or institutional biases.” Which is kind of the problem, whether you’re learning the customs of another culture or having a heart-to-heart with a population you have traditionally oppressed or meditating on your own bias against women. Nearly 20 years ago, a police psychologist commented on the “racism of a rogue officer”—Mark Fuhrman, a key detective in O.J. Simpson’s trial—and the problem of bad, biased cops. “It takes a long, long time,” to change the force, he said. “Almost like getting genetic differences in new generations of people.”
But given the number of black men still being killed during routine policing, that new generation clearly hasn’t come yet—and it probably never will, considering that bias and racism both insidious and systematic isn’t just about cops jumping to conclusions. Even Tony Greenwald, the social psychologist whose work implicit bias trainings are based on, has his doubts about their efficacy. As Greenwald told Forbes not too long ago, “Diversity training does not have a good track record in producing effectiveness, and there’s no indication yet that this new wave based on implicit bias will do any better.”