21st Century Police Units Need To Represent The Communities Where They Serve

Making police departments better reflect their communities will be a huge step towards positive change.
08/25/2016 12:47 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2016
William Mewes via Creative Commons Attribution

Earlier this summer the Department of Justice announced that the agency’s core curriculum will now include mandatory bias training for thousands of their employees.

Police departments across the country – reeling from the shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and elsewhere – are taking similar measures, promising to enlist outside experts to help officers gain insight into their decision-making process with an eye toward limiting these tragic deaths.

Silicon Valley has also invested heavily in these trainings and our experiences reveal one troubling truth: unconscious bias trainings alone are not enough.

Alexandra Kalev, a co-author of this month’s Harvard Business Review cover story “Why Diversity Programs Fail” said despite the popularity of unconscious bias training, “it doesn’t work. For decades, diversity management programs flourished with no evidence whatsoever about their effects and their success.” A New York Times article likened bias reduction trainings to “experimental drugs.”

Police are a constant presence in our communities; they enforce our laws; and they interact with people at their most vulnerable moments. They (and we) ought to leverage everything we already know about combatting bias to ensure that they (and we) are well served from the investment.

Instead of doubling-down on what we know isn’t successful, we ought to be leveraging every aspect of what we know about decision-making science to make combatting bias in the private and public sector a national priority.

Nudge-technology has been hugely successful at guiding decision-making around a whole host of issues from encouraging people to make healthier snack choices to helping companies develop fair hiring practices. Can we leverage and explore these already successful technologies to guide police decision-making in the moment?

One way we know technology can play a role in minimizing racial disparities is in hiring. Too often police forces do not reflect they population they serve. Even in cities like Saint Louis, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, where whites represent a fraction of the population, police departments are regularly forty plus percentage points more white than their community.

Technology can disrupt biases that emerge during the hiring process and it can ensure that police departments market positions in ways that appeal to women and people of color and encourage them to apply.  

Making police departments better reflect their communities will be a huge step towards positive change, immediately altering ingrained patterns and community perceptions. A Guardian article revealed polls showing that “more than 70% of Blacks, Hispanics, and whites in the United States believed that a city’s police department should have a similar racial composition to the city.”

What’s more, diversifying our police forces may actually help the white officers in those departments to reduce their biases more effectively. Kalev’s article – coauthored with Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin – argues that increased contact among different racial groups is one of the most successful ways to disrupt bias. They cite evidence of this phenomenon documented as early as World War II when Army troops were integrated for the first time.

As the Justice Department and police officials across the country turn their attention and resources to combatting bias, let’s be sure leveraging the latest in Silicon Valley technology and decision-making science is part of the solution. We and they deserve nothing less.

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