Police Psychology: Are You Biased, Of Course…
By Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
Just when you thought all the stupidity in the world was surrounding the election this year, I thought I would tell you some more bad news. Judicial Watch just released an article that states that police departments can no longer stop a person from becoming a police officer because they have a criminal background or drug abuse. Apparently it is discriminatory (see the article here).* Am I missing something, isn’t the purpose of the selection process to discriminate good and bad employees, people who earn a job versus people whose record indicates they could be involved in corruption, breaking the law or a become a problem later. Isn’t past behavior the best predictor of future behavior? The inmates would literally be running the asylum. Now is that a bad idea?
In 1966, Phillippe de Broca released a French film call King of Hearts which explored the topics of the inmates running an asylum, in fact it was a town being run by an asylum. In World War I, a town had a bomb planted by the departing Germans that threatened to blow up the whole town. The townspeople evacuated and they sent in a Scottish soldier to defuse the bomb. The town had a large mental asylum on the outskirts and the someone left the asylum doors open and the inmates inhabited the town and took on the roles of the town folks. What transpired was an absolutely hilarious situation comedy as the inmates would do things that were completely against convention and lived life to have fun, not accomplish things like when the town was inhabited by the regular residents. They held parades, had ill-conceived romances, wore outlandish clothing, all in an attempt to make life fun. Could we exist this way? Could our lives use reduction of convention? Can we learn to laugh at ourselves again?
The answer is probably no, not until we get very old, and just don’t care anymore. Bias, prejudice and discrimination are probably at fault. We must understand how these concepts function before we have any hope of laughing at ourselves.
What Does It Mean
The opposite of bias is ignorance. You are biased every day by things that happen in your life. Call it experience, protective radar and it doesn’t sound as bad, call it bias and you bring great criticism to yourself. If I am shopping for fruit in a grocery store and find bananas with spots don’t last as long before they get mushy or my mama tells me they don’t last as long when I am young, I become biased against bananas with brown spots. It is how we overcome ignorance and how we make ourselves safe in this world. Prejudice is the act of taking the education and experience from the resulting biases, and putting them to work. So bias and prejudice are related in a way.
If you are a cop, and you find a neighborhood often has dangerous activity, by the principles of bias you should avoid that neighborhood or at least be on high alert when patrolling there. You would be considered prejudiced by your previous knowledge of the neighborhood. And in fact, you are, and you do avoid and increase you carefulness when you enter the neighborhood. Your experience and everything you were taught in the academy and field training tells you to look for certain crimes there. If you didn’t you would be a total dolt, ignorant and naïve. Then you could be a politician (had to take my jab).
Discrimination is determining the differences in things or people and deciding how to proceed based on those differences. All knowledge and experience is based on the ability to discriminate – which plants to eat, which people to associate with, were to place your savings. You are dead meat if you cannot discriminate between a poisonous plant and a plant you can eat. Discriminating things is natural. If you didn’t discriminate things you would go through the world and see all things the same.
Making a Good Term Bad
Now let’s do what society has done and turn these words bad. Society has said that you are showing bias if you consider a person’s skin color, gender, religious orientation or sex important in your decision making of what to do with a perp. Further an act on that distinction is an act of prejudice, and you should never use gender, race or sex as a discriminator. Further, if all acts of terrorism in the country are with people who are of a certain ethical group, you are not allowed to be alerted that the next person you meet of that ethical group may be a terrorist. Essentially, you must throw out experience and education when you work as a cop. Your radar that protects you must be short-circuited. Therein lies the problem. We are not going to short-circuit this almost instinctual reaction.
In psychology, we control bias by the ordering of tasks and the purposeful ignorance of some data. For example, we never write a report in forensic case until we are paid so payment doesn’t bias our words. We may not look at the data until all data points are collected. You may not talk to the victim or the cops before you hear the story from the perpetrator. It is done on a case by case decision, but you can reduce different sources of the bias with a variety of methods.
In policing, it is very similar. Cops who control bias may look at the way a person dresses first or the whether the person is cooperating. Again order is very important and that need to be known. A lack of cooperation will definitely bias a situation, keeping the hands where they can be seen help reduce bias in a situation. The presence of a gun is a bad prejudice for a situation, but again not the only prejudice. Race, gender, etc. will also prejudice a situation depending on your experience, but make sure you put things in the right order when you talk about it or defend you actions. This is not explained to people very well. People accused of bias usually say I am not biased, and that doesn’t work.
In Defense of the Terms
I was once asked about bias in court when defending a shooting situation on a civil case and I used the line “of course they were biased and prejudiced. I am very biased and prejudice.” “How could they not be? The opposite of bias is ignorance.” The plaintiff’s attorney loved hearing that. The judge asked me to explain. So, I started to explain, much to the chagrin of the plaintiff’s attorney who was objecting every two seconds. The judge told him to sit down and instructed the jury to listen carefully because this was the basis of the whole case. I went on to explain good and bad bias and how we control bad bias in science, but that the basis of science was to create good bias in the future. I must have talked for five to seven minutes without a peep in the courtroom. There were no more questions from the attorney and they settled after a short recess. There is power when you understand the meaning of words and put perspective on it.
Bias is not inherently bad, in fact it protects you and those around you. You must discriminate people. You must live with some prejudice or you will be ignorant and put yourself in danger. So, the next person that accuses you of being biased, say “hell yea!” Say yes to discrimination and say yes to prejudice because the opposite is ignorance and stupidity, and “you don’t want to be ignorant and naive in the situations cops are in.” Then explain.
There was no political correctness in the movie the King of Hearts. Let us not fear the conventions that restrict our happiness and sense of fun. Embrace the fun, and put the convention in proper perspective and that will go a lot further than your think.
*The actual justice department report is not quite as bad as the Judicial Watch article would suggest.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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