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Training alone won’t change bias, use of force in policing, says expert

Training police officers only goes so far, says an expert on bias in policing – they’re human and they respond that way.

Law enforcement agencies across North America have been under a microscope after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minnesota police.

The killing sparked Black Lives Matter protests and rallies involving millions of people. In Calgary, rallies were held daily, sometimes drawing thousands into city streets, calling for change.

It’s forced cities to look at anti-racism measures, including in their respective police forces. Calls to defund the police have come across the country, including in Calgary.

But when it comes to changing policing, training is only one aspect.

Earlier this year, the Calgary Police Service posted a statement to Facebook promising a commitment to work harder to end racial and biased police work. 

Jack Glaser, a social psychologist from the University of California Berkeley who focuses on stereotyping and discrimination, said training police officers only does so much. 

“With regard to training on bias and diversity, and cultural sensitivity training, the literature is pretty discouraging,” said Glaser. 

“The very few studies that have been done on implicit bias training for example, have not shown there to be any effect on actual effect on police performance.”

Glaser said the police have the right intentions in setting up mandatory training, however, it can also be dangerous.

“The danger is that departments think that they have solved that problem by doing the training, and they may even have a false sense of confidence,” said Glaser.

Training time for Calgary police

Sergeant John Warin of the skills and procedure unit of the Calgary Police Service said new recruits are given roughly 27 weeks of skills training.

Officers also receive 32 hours of strategic communication and deescalation training.

“The recruits get about 64 hours of mat room time where they get taught the basic hands on and use of force tools, skills, but we also spend a lot of time on decision making tooling for them in that time,” said Warin.

Warin said officers are trained to use a variety of strategies to resolve highly-escalated situations.

He said in many situations the police are willing to wait things out to ensure a positive outcome.

“Calgary is very good at sitting and waiting. We’ll wait as long as necessary to speak with that person to, to try to deescalate, to try to get other resources in place,” said Warin.

Use of force – fight or flight

Glaser said that just like the rest of us, police officers are people. People have a hard time controlling their emotions and reactions at times. That can lead to escalated events.

“When a police officer is in a use-of-force situation, they’re human, they’re experiencing fear. They may be having a fight or flight response,” said Glaser.

“In most of the officer-involved fatalities, you have a shooting, and you have a rapidly unfolding situation. And at the end of the incident, the officer has to make a snap judgment.”

Calgary police Deputy Chief Raj Gill said in 2017, an independent use of force investigation was done on the Calgary police.

The review focused on Calgary Police Service policies and procedures. This included equipment, culture training and supervision of personnel..

Chief Justice Neil Wittmann, QC, who handled the review, provided 65 recommendations.

“85 per cent of these recommendations are currently in progress, touching on all aspects of the service and beyond,” said Gill.

“Some will require a collaborative approach with both government and other public sectors to ensure effective, and holistic approaches to address gaps in service, including enhancements to the police.”