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Police department tackles brain mysteries and racial bias

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SUBMITTED PHOTO - Forest Grove Police Capt. Mike Herb (holding granddaughter Khalaya) says his relationship with her father, Khaylub, has led to deep conversations about racial bias and helped both of them better understand each others experience. It’s something every reader of this story shares:

Bias — a feeling or impulse towards or against something, formed by forces we may not understand.

Muslims, Christians, Republicans, Democrats, vegetarians, people with tattoos — our bias lists are long and wide-ranging.

Some biases are reasonable or harmless. Others are irrational, unfair and dangerous.

That’s where the Forest Grove Police Department comes in. Department leaders don’t want biases to negatively affect their interactions with the people they serve. They also want the public to know they are working to make sure that never happens.

“People assume we are not getting training in these areas or that we are not aware of these concepts. We are,” said FGPD Capt. Mike Herb.

They’re also well aware of the national conversation on racial inequities in the criminal justice system and in the country as a whole.

“I think a lot of people have the impression we don’t take profiling and bias seriously and that we try to say it doesn’t exist. It does, but maybe not always in the way people think,” Herb said.

The problem is that while we’re aware of some of our biases, others are hidden deep inside our brains and would shock us if we learned about them because they are opposite of what we consciously feel and believe.

That’s how Herb and one of the authors of this story (Jill Rehkopf Smith) — whose conscious attitudes toward African Americans are open and positive — both showed a preference for European Americans over African Americans when taking special online tests crafted to reveal unconscious bias.

That’s an ironic result for Herb, whose most life-threatening police incidents have all been at the hands of white men.

Conversely, Chief Janie Schutz, who was nearly killed by an African American man when responding to a call in North Carolina, showed no preference at all when she took the tests.

On a different test, reporter Stephanie Haugen more strongly associated weapons with blacks than whites.

(To take the online tests, go to: implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html?)

In Forest Grove, only 1.8 percent of residents in 2015 were either “black alone” or mixed with another race, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. But 23 percent were Latino — as are roughly 50 percent of the high school’s 2,000 students, which include youth from neighboring Cornelius.

To ensure Forest Grove officers don’t contribute to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the FGPD is taking a number of steps.

- As the result of a rigorous but targeted hiring process over the past five years, four of its 21 patrol officers are now Latino and speak fluent Spanish, while two more speak conversational Spanish. Five years ago, there was only one Latino, Spanish-speaking officer.

- The FGPD is adding a new unit on “Racial Bias and Police Legitimacy” to its annual Citizens Academy, which starts in February and is now full (see sidebar).NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - Capt. Mike Herb helps run the annual FGPD Citizens Academy, which will offer a new class this year on Racial Bias and Police Legitimacy.

- At an Executive Leadership Training Conference next week, Herb and Chief Janie Schutz are attending a class on “The Impact of Bias on Police Use of Force,” which is being presented by Washington State University Professor Lois James, who specializes in Counter Bias Training Simulation, a reality-based program designed to help officers identify and overcome implicit biases.

- Schutz and Herb are working with an African-American parole officer in Portland who also specializes in cross-cultural communication to set up a “listening session” with community members in Forest Grove.

- The department is also working with a researcher for the Coalition of Communities of Color on a Washington County research project.

- A number of officers have taken the online tests that reveal a person’s hidden biases, including Herb, Schutz and others.

FGPD officer Waael Jared graduated in October from the Oregon Police Academy, which teaches classes on Cultural Awareness and Diversity. Exercises revealed trainees’ conscious biases against everything from Prius drivers to lawyers, said Jared, who was born in Salem but whose father is from Saudi Arabia.

At the academy, Jared was one of six trainees who signed up for an optional, recently added evening course on racial bias and racial profiling in which he took the bias tests.

“It was eye opening,” said Jared. Now, “I think I’m more aware of potential bias on the road and I take more time to think about it.”

That awareness is one of the keys to preventing biased police behavior, says Herb, who is something of a specialist on the subject, having taken classes, read extensively and met with specialists to deepen his knowledge. He recently answered some of the News-Times’ questions about bias and policing.

NT: What’s the difference between having racial bias and being racist?

MH: A racial bias or “preference” at the unconscious level does not always equate to racism but you will always see racial bias in someone who is racist. The reality is that we all form unconscious biases from a very early age, influenced by a number of different factors, and no one should automatically take this as an accusation of being racist.

Is racial profiling what happens when people act on their hidden racial biases?

Hidden or conscious. Either way, racial profiling is law enforcement authorities targeting specific individuals, based not on their behavior but on their race. It strikes at my very core that this is so wrong. And I’m confident the men and women working today for the FGPD feel the same way.

In Forest Grove, annual statistics on all our stops — whether driving, biking or walking — provide evidence that we do not racially profile. (At the News-Times’ request, the FGPD released recently recorded statistics for 2016, which show that only 20 percent of FGPD’s 4,243 stops involved Latinos and 2.2 percent involved African Americans.)

I feel confident that our culture and training environment here at FGPD helps prevent racial profiling. Our department takes a very firm stance on this.

What other kinds of biases did those tests reveal to you?

Some revealed that I implicitly tend to associate older folks or women with words like “delicate” and “tender” and younger people and men with words like “robust” and “strong.” Yet consciously, I work with many tough female colleagues, including reporting to a female Chief! I think this is one example supporting the idea of having the option of anonymity while still learning about our unconscious biases. This is such a sensitive issue and so much more awareness is needed as labels are too easily placed on us. Without the general public understanding that implicit bias is not an accusation and doesn’t mean you are bad, it could harm your reputation or even your job. Fortunately my boss understands! If not, she might have taken offense and started treating me differently.

Ironically, such ramifications are exactly what people face when they are on the receiving end of racial bias, when it becomes conscious and turns to harmful actions.

What’s the value of becoming aware of your implicit biases?

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Capt. Mike Herb believes awareness of our hidden biases is the first and most important step in counteracting their negative impacts.Once you become aware, you can then better identify situations in which your implicit bias can impact your behavior. I believe in most cases our conscious and deliberate intention NOT to racially profile kicks in.

Can you ever get rid of your unconscious biases?

I’ll be evaluating an anti-bias training program next week. But I think awareness and outreach is key. For example, when I attended a forum and lunch at Centro Cultural and got to meet some new people, I came away with greater insight on the challenges they face. When I went to the Muslim Cultural Trust and sat at a table with a Laotian refugee, a Muslim man and others from very diverse backgrounds, we got to know each other as human beings, looking beyond our cultural differences. I feel we can achieve greater understanding and reduce negative impacts from bias far more effectively one-on-one than by attending a class or lecture.

Has your personal relationship with your daughter’s longtime boyfriend affected your understanding of this issue, given that he’s a young African American man and you’re a white cop?

To the extent that we have had hours of deep conversation on these topics, yes. We have come to learn from each other and have greater understanding. When Khaylub first met me, he was clearly uneasy. Knowing that I was a police officer added to this anxiety and he thought I would not like him. As we got to know each other better, I remember offering some tips on a particular thesis he was writing for a college class on a topic I had some background on. He took me up on them. I remember hitting the gym together as well. Over time, we got to know each other beyond the uniform, badge and skin color. I think getting to know each other has allowed him to have a different perspective of police and I have an even greater understanding of, for example, what he feels every time we walk into a place where he is the only African American there.

We have had many deep conversations on racial bias. He and my daughter have even taken the online Implicit Bias testing. Interestingly enough, my daughter showed a “preference for European American over African American” and Khaylub showed a “preference for African American over European American.” Not a surprise given their backgrounds and yet as they have been together for six years and share a child, I think it shows the difference between implicit bias and racism. It further reinforces for me that we need to spend time getting to know community members we might not ordinarily meet and establishing relationships with them.

You mentioned they have a child together. Can you tell us about your granddaughter?

I’m still getting used the idea that I’m actually a grandpa but also loving it. My granddaughter’s name is Khalaya and she is three months old. I’ve been asked questions about her “mixed ethnicity” and if I am aware and prepared for the challenges she will face being “half-white/half-black.” I feel society too willingly allows labels to define who we are and ethnicity is just one example. While my granddaughter is genetically bi-racial, she is 100 percent a whole treasure and will be raised to beautifully embrace diversity and the person she is and becomes.