Shakil was recently interviewed by the Toronto Star about racial profiling and police.
Unconscious bias plays role in policing, author says
By: San Grewal Urban Affairs Reporter, Published on Wed Oct 21 2015
Another public consultation was held in Peel Region this week on the issue of street checks, similar to the Toronto practice known as “carding,” both of which have raised deep concerns about racial profiling in police practices. Author, educator and consultant Shakil Choudhury’s new book, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Star spoke with Choudhury about a central theme in his book, unconscious bias. The interview was edited for length.
How difficult is it for all of us to identify our biases? And are police better than most at this?
The tougher, the more subtle, the systemic kinds of bias are hard to detect. They are more unconscious. They play out in our hesitations. They play outin our preferences, simple day-to-day things, like who I walk in to work with and say “good morning” to and who I don’t. They come out instinctively; we’re not thinking about them. They are referred to as “micro-aggressions.” In order to overcome them, we have to catch them first. It’s very tough.
If police officers aren’t able to detect their bias, then in their high-pressure situations, the use of force may be greater than they anticipate. Generally, police, according to research and bias testing, are about the same as most of us. On something such as weapons bias, where black and white faces are flashed very quickly on a screen, and they have something in their hand — a wallet, a cellphone or an actual weapon — what we find is police officers do a little bit better than everybody else when a black face is shown not holding a weapon. They’re not quite as trigger-happy.
Do police forces in Canada recognize the role of bias in their work?
The reality is, the vast majority of police departments for a very long time have been in a state of denial that there are any problems around discrimination, stereotyping, prejudice. Even though in Canada more than 15 studies have been done since the ’70s on racial profiling, even then, police departments have been very resistant to say that there is bias, that there is prejudice, that officers have been at times functioning on stereotypes. But it’s the same for all organizations and companies.
(Former Toronto police) chief Bill Blair finally acknowledged that a few years ago. (Toronto police) were the first ones to conduct the study; he was the first chief to say: “Wow, we actually realize there was profiling.” It takes a lot of guts to say that, especially for a police officer. I’m hoping that the research into unconscious bias will allow a different conversation to happen.
What is the role of bias in police carding or street checks? Can it help if a force is more reflective of its community’s diversity?
Bias, of course, plays out in street checks. It’s another form of stereotyping. It’s another form of racial profiling. And even though a police officer isn’t supposed to stop anybody based on their skin colour, because that’s discriminatory and that’s illegal, they are doing it, because there’s no clarity as to why they’re doing it. It’s discretionary.
Any time you have discretionary power, our biases come out the most. The fewer guidelines we have, the higher likelihood that bias is going to play out. One of the things that can assist that is representation, the idea that our police forces start representing the communities based on what the communities look like, having the same characteristics — demographically, culturally.