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Amid protests and change, Iowa police training on implicit bias varies

The Iowa Law Enforcement Academy plans to add an implicit bias course to their fall basic academy. Other courses covered the term in past sessions, but this will be the first course solely devoted to the topic.
The Iowa Law Enforcement Academy plans to add an implicit bias course to their fall basic academy. Other courses covered the term in past sessions, but this will be the first course solely devoted to the topic.

In 2015, the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy lacked training on implicit bias.

As a cadet there then, Natasha Greene sought discussions on her own about some of the mistaken beliefs officers might hold of others, such as expecting a black person to be dangerous or more crime prone from stereotypes, ideas that could come from television or passed from family and friends.

Now an Iowa State Police Department officer, Greene said these conversations were uncomfortable and akward.

“If I’m talking to somebody I care about and their fly’s down, of course I’m going to tell them their fly’s down because it would be more harmful for me to just let them carry on without knowing,” Greene said.

Today those discussions are more serious and more uncomfortable as the May 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police brought the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for defunding police. Implicit bias and training officers became part of the national conversation.

In Iowa, protests and demonstrations, at times destructive, ensued after Floyd’s death. In June, lawmakers and Gov. Kim Reynolds responded with a law banning the use of chokeholds and requiring yearly implicit bias training for in-service officers.

The protests and cases continued. In Indianola last week, Simpson College classes were canceled for a daylong and peaceful protest in which Black students demanded action from school leaders. In Rochester, N.Y., last week video of police apprehending David Prude was released. Prude later died after that March incident. In Wisconsin, protests persist after the police Aug. 23 shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, who is now paralyzed.

The ILEA, which trains hundreds of the state’s officers, added the implicit bias training last fall to its future classes, Director Judy Bradshaw said. This action is several years behind other Iowa police training programs and other states, a monthslong IowaWatch review found.

Before attending the academy, Greene, whose family includes minorities, confronted her unknown racial biases while working for an organization for victims of sexual assault and abuse.

“I think it’s important for people to also understand that while their intentions may be to treat everyone equally, or that they truly believe that they’re able to look impartially on every situation, psychology just says that that’s not the case,” Greene said.

‘Human condition’

Implicit bias is a “human condition,” said Kevin Pokorny, who owns a Des Moines consulting company and has taught businesses and police departments on the topic.” It is the idea that people all have biases, often unbeknownst to them, that could affect decisions, behaviors and actions.

People hold unknown biases about religions, race, gender and age groups, said Amanda Greider, Cedar Rapids Police Department public safety program manager. Greider, who is white, teaches implicit bias at their police academy.

The topic is often part of the conversation after police killings of Black people such as Floyd because it is believed these biases can affect quick-second decisions officers make on a daily basis.

“The brain categorizes things very quickly … in our subconscious,” Pokorny said, “to the extent that when we get involved in situations where we have to make decisions about people or places or things, our brain just makes unconscious associations, and evaluations about it and we act on it.”

Implicit bias training around the state

The Iowa Law Enforcement Academy currently includes several courses on race relations, cultural competency and de-escalation but never a class focused on the officers’ implicit biases.

The 625-hour program averages between 76 to 96 trainees a session, or 228 to 288 trainees a year.

The Cedar Rapids Regional Police Academy added implicit bias training four years ago.

Greider said the push to add the program came from their police chief, Wayne Jerman, after he said other programs around the country incorporate it. Even with the pandemic, the annual two-hour training for their officers will take place virtually.

“It has to be top of mind to be successful,” Greider said.

The Des Moines Police Academy and the Iowa Department of Public Safety offer courses that include implicit bias like the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, but do not have a specific implicit bias course.

Bradshaw, who formerly served as Des Moines police chief, said now is the time for those in law enforcement to “sit back and listen.”

“It’s truly about respect, and that’s showing respect on both sides,” Bradshaw said. “Part of the problem is that we’ve created these divides, and the ‘we/they.’ So really the discussion is: how do we come together and strengthen the relationship?