Oklahoma City officers take long look at themselves and citizens in bias training class
Oklahoma City police this fall received another type of training that dealt not with shooting acumen or vehicle maneuvers, but how they see and treat the citizens they serve and how they're seen in return.
"The program is called fair and impartial policing. Basically, the class deals with bias," said Maj. Wade Gourley, who is the department's director of training.
"This is probably the most involved that we've had in a while and it was a complete revamping of how we've done this type of training and everybody that's a commissioned officer on the department went through it," he said.
Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty said that this training class was years in the making, but that this curriculum has the U.S. Department of Justice's stamp of approval.
"It's just good training for anybody because I think it's an eye-opener for anyone who goes through it, whether it's our personal lives or it's in the workplace," Citty said.
"We've always tried to stay out in front of the issues. If not, you're going to get behind and I think this community expects us to be at the top of our game," he said. "It's deeper than just police and minority relationships. Biases and discrimination, we're dealing with things that manifest themselves in the community as a whole. Discrimination and bias occurs in all aspects and areas of our community and officers are dealing with a lot of that anger."
"I've really had my eyes opened in talking to people on this issue in doing these community meetings, and I thought I was pretty open-minded," Citty said. "I don't wake up every morning and look in the mirror and think of my color of my skin and think about how that's going to affect my day, but a lot of black people do."
Citty recorded a video to be played before each training class.
"I had one lady in one meeting, and I shared it on the video with them, that officers had put her son on the ground and detained him and he turned out not to be the right person and he's traumatized and the mother's traumatized. When I talked to him about it, he said, 'I thought I was never going to see you (his mother) again' because all he's been seeing is police officers shooting unarmed black men. Why would they think anything else? That's all they're seeing on TV and social media," Citty said. "That young man truly believes that. It doesn't make it right. It doesn't mean it's real, but it is to him and we need to be more patient and understand those types of things. He's biased against police officers, and to him, it's as real as the day is long."
Citty in the video also let officers know that they weren't in trouble or accused of doing anything wrong.
"We don't do driver training or make you qualify with your gun because we think you're a bad driver or you can't shoot, but because that training reminds us of the job we have to do and helps us do it better," he said.
A major component of the training involves more conversing with the people police encounter instead of relying on brusque authority.
One of the key things taught to officers comes from a 2004 study on profiling, which has been against department policy for decades. That study found that, "When people believe that profiling is widespread and/or that they have been profiled, their support for police fades."
"What it amounts to is just explaining to people why we're doing what we're doing. They may not agree with it, they might not like it, but explain to citizens why they're getting a ticket instead of being gruff," Gourley said.
Gourley used as an example stopping a man on a midnight walk. As an officer patrolling an area after a rash of car burglaries in that neighborhood, he knows he's not stopping someone based on their race or gender. But unless the officer tells the citizen those things, they're free to fill in the blanks themselves.
"You realize that I'm stopping you for a valid reason and if I'm an officer that doesn't do that, if I say, 'I'm stopping you because I'm the police and I can,' then your opinion is not going to change because you believe you were stopped and you were targeted for whatever reason, whatever you have in your mind," Gourley said.
And contemporary policing also demands an honest look at history of the profession.
"We took some of that history and talked about how some of these opinions of law enforcement were developed, and it's tough to watch some of it and to realize those kind of things occurred. Some of the language and things, they were treated badly by law enforcement. It's hard to overcome that," Gourley said. "You have people that are younger people that didn't experience what their parents and grandparents experienced in the '60s and '70s, but they're telling them about it."
"I'll never know what it's like to be a minority, to be a person of color or anything like that. I'll never know that, and won't pretend to know that, but I have noticed in times throughout my life when I'm wearing this (uniform), that you get a different look, people may stop talking whenever you walk into a room and things like that. I won't pretend to say that that's the same thing, but you see how bias can go both ways," Gourley said.
Officers in the class are also shown the results of recent studies, many of which have resulted in findings contrary to the images and narratives seen in the culture at large.
A study published in January by Lois James at the University of Washington found that police officers were less likely to shoot black people than white people, and when they do, it takes them longer to pull the trigger.
That exercise is loosely replicated in the training classes, which consist of about 30 officers at a time. They're flashed a photo of a person and the group calls out whether to shoot or don't shoot.
"We showed our officers and it was almost 100 percent they got every image right. We're not looking at the color of a person's face or anything like that. We're watching their hands," Gourley said.
"We did a lot of research and looked at what's out there, and what we really found is most of the studies, when they go out and try to prove officer bias, they actually find that we have those biases but we're less likely to act on them," he said.
"The difference between us and the general public, we deal with it every day. Every single day, we have to take calls in areas that are outside our norm, or deal with persons that we don't normally hang around, so to speak," Gourley said. "That doesn't mean there's not officers out there that do things wrong — you see it every night — but there's a difference in making an honest mistake and doing something with malice. And I think the incidents with true malice are very few. They get the most attention, but they're very few.
"I don't want to negate the fact that somebody out there has been mistreated by a police officer. I know that's happened. I'm not naive. Everything you do has an impact on the next police officer. So if you go out and you mistreat someone, that affects every officer that has to deal with them from then on. I really try to get that across to younger officers, especially," he said.