TAMPA — The city of Ferguson, Missouri, has attracted national attention this week after a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager Saturday night and the small city just outside of St. Louis erupted.
But in addition to the angry protests and ongoing investigations, Ferguson police have a long-term problem, said University of South Florida professor Lorie Fridell. The city obviously has little faith in the police department, including whether it can conduct a fair and unbiased investigation into the shooting, she said.
“The recent events in Ferguson highlight how important it is for police departments to develop the trust and confidence of their community members,” she said.
That's what Fridell helps law enforcement agencies around the country try to accomplish, and she cringes when she sees what happens when that trust between a police agency and the community it serves doesn't develop. It's something she's worked hard to prevent, including in Tampa.
A nationally recognized expert on biased policing, Fridell has received more than $1 million in grants from the Department of Justice and other organizations to design and implement her training program, “Fair and Impartial Policing.” She has visited hundreds of agencies in the United States and Canada since 2008 to teach workshops to the departments' various command levels and law enforcement instructors.
The program is based on the science of prejudice, Fridell said. She said data shows that bias, or the tendency to group strangers into a particular category, is human nature.
“It's a perspective that needs to be adopted and understood,” she said.
In her seminars, Fridell explains that there are two types of biases: explicit and implicit.
Explicit bias is a prejudice the person knows he or she has, she said. A racist is an example of someone with an explicit bias.
Fridell said implicit bias, a prejudice that a person is unaware of, is more common.
During one of her workshops, Fridell leads a role-playing exercise to show officers how implicit bias can affect their work.
In the scenario she creates, police are called to investigate a domestic violence case. When the officers arrive, they see one woman, the victim, standing between a man and another woman, who are both saying, “I'm so sorry this happened.”
The officers almost always assume that it was the man who committed the act of violence, Fridell said. But instead, it was the other woman who committed the crime in that scenario.
“It's like bias has gone underground,” Fridell said. “Yet it still has the same power to produce discriminatory behavior.”
Fridell started developing the training program several years ago as the director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit police think tank based out of Washington, D.C. At the time, racial profiling was one of the biggest problems facing police command staffs, for whom the training was originally designed, she said.
Fridell joined the USF faculty in 2005 and has since expanded the program to include curricula for different officer groups, including recruits and patrol officers, first-level supervisors, mid-managers and law enforcement instructors.
The command-level course — which touches on how departments can eliminate bias by reviewing their hiring practices, training courses and community outreach — is relevant to the current situation in Ferguson, Fridell said. That workshop deals with the long-term efforts to promote impartial policing, she said, and the current riots in Missouri indicate that there is a history of perceived bias between the residents of Ferguson and the mostly white police department.
“I think if that same incident occurred in Tampa, the racial and ethnic community would have more faith and trust in a fair and thorough investigation,” she said.
Fridell has conducted her three-day, “Train the Trainer” session with about 30 of the Tampa Police Department's law enforcement instructors, said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor. Those instructors are now qualified to teach the Fair and Impartial Policing training for recruits, patrol officers and first-line supervisors.
Beginning in 2015, the program will be part of the department's regular training, Castor said.
“In our organization, our golden rule is that everyone is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their station in the community or their station in life,” she said.
Castor also invited Fridell to lead a command-level session with the department executives last month, and included members of the community — including representatives from the local chapter of the NAACP, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and reverends from local churches — to be a part of the discussion.
Carolyn Hepburn Collins, president of the Hillsborough NAACP, said she was glad to be invited. Her organization receives several civil rights violations complaints every week, she said, and a significant portion of them are related to law enforcement.
She said she was impressed with how engaging and involved Fridell was. And Collins was pleased that Castor thought to include other community members in the discussion.
“We really benefited from it,” she said.
Fridell's training shows the officers how their perceptions can affect their day-to-day activities, Castor said. It also is a reminder about how they should treat people.
“When it comes down to it, that's what citizens care about,” Castor said. “How they were treated by the officer.”