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Policing the police

Over the holiday weekend, hundreds of protesters continued to march through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

Though the violence in Ferguson seems to have died down three weeks after the death of Michael Brown, peaceful protests and civil disobedience continues to be a problem for police.

Lori Fridell, a USF criminology professor and an expert on police bias, doesn’t see the issue simply as a response to Brown’s death. To Fridell, the protests and violence are the culmination of long-term issues with the perception of police bias and lack of trust from the community.

“There were other unarmed black males that were shot by police during the last few weeks,” she said. “But in some jurisdictions, the community members, although they are very concerned about the incident, might not and have not produced a disruption, because they have the confidence that there will be a serious investigation, that it will be transparent.”

Fridell’s research has received over $1 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice so that she can run training seminars for police agencies of all sizes. She currently spends her time traveling across the U.S. holding seminars for police on implicit bias and impartial policing.

She wants to make sure these agencies don’t end up in a similar situation as the Ferguson Police Department.

“They need people to call the police to report crime, to bring information to the police about criminal activity, we need them to believe the police when the police are testifying in a trial …” she said. “There’s very little the police can do well unless they have the trust and confidence of the community.”

Fridell specifically targets implicit bias because it is something that affects individuals who, on a conscious level, reject bias and prejudice.

“The way that prejudice manifests has changed over time,” she said. “In our grandparents’ era when bias and prejudice manifested, it tended to be in the form of what we now call explicit bias…implicit biases can impact us outside of our conscious awareness.”

Tampa Police Department’s (TPD) Police Chief Jane Castor participated in bias training a little over a month ago when Fridell held a seminar near Tampa.

Fridell’s seminars include role-playing scenarios in which officers will have to react on the spot to situations such as domestic violence disputes. Many officers automatically assume the male at the scene is the one who abused the woman, showcasing their implicit bias.

“It’s very hard to reduce our implicit biases,” Fridell said in a previous interview with The Oracle. “It took us a lifetime to develop them and they’re not going away quickly.”

Eric Ward, TPD’s deputy chief, said the type of violent outburst seen in Ferguson would never happen in Tampa given the department’s long-standing relationship with the community.

“The chief’s golden rule here is that we be fair and impartial,” he said. “She teaches that from the day you enter the academy till the day you are sworn in.”

Ward said Chief Castor returned from Fridell’s seminar with “a different perspective of policing.” He said TPD has always tried to maintain good relations with the community and Fridell’s seminar has only renewed that resolve.

“When citizens see something happening, they come to us and we address the issue, no matter how big or how small,” Ward said. “We try to touch base with the community and not just when a crime is committed. We want them to know we are human and not just police.”

For Fridell, the human aspect of policing is exactly what makes her work so important. Trust and confidence from members of the community, and the human relationships that make it possible, are the key to making sure an incident like Ferguson doesn’t happen again.

“This isn’t about police, this is about humans and all humans in all professions have these implicit biases,” Fridell said. “So every community should be working to promote impartial policing: community members in partnership with their police department.”