A Uniform Approach

With law enforcement across the country under scrutiny, UMD and a local police department team up to help cadets see beyond black and white
by Liam Farrell | illustrations by Brian G. Payne

In an antiseptic classroom on the outskirts of Upper Marlboro, Md., a collection of young adults stand in a straight line, with their eyes closed, and are posed a series of questions.

Are you right-handed? Take one step forward.

Do you primarily rely on public transportation? Take one step back.

Does your family own a computer? Take one step forward.

Are you from a single-parent household? Take one step back.

And so on, until the equalized starting line becomes a squiggle of people, visually representing how identity can move people ahead—or behind—their peers.

Although it looks and sounds like the sort of exercise one would find in a corporate boardroom or college seminar, the participants this December day are not your typical employees or students: They are cadets from the Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD).

This “privilege walk” is one part of a new collaboration between the department and its neighbor, the University of Maryland, to have recruits consider the complexities of the citizens they will meet and recognize the inaccurate assumptions they may unknowingly take to work each day.

It’s particularly relevant now, at a time when departments across the country have wrestled with accusations of racial bias. In a post-Ferguson America, PGPD is at the forefront of an enhanced training that takes into account “implicit bias,” the instinctive set of stereotypes and prejudices based on skin color, clothing, hairstyle or other surface traits. In other words, someone may not want to judge a book by its cover—but might do so anyway.

Chief Henry P. Stawinski III, a second-generation PGPD policeman, thinks this is a new way to ingrain in his newest members what he calls the everyday “hard work of small things”: officers whose conduct in the vast majority of public interactions—traffic stops, neighborhood meetings, routine investigations—builds the trust needed during worst-case scenarios.

“What we want the community to do,” he says, “is be confident that when there are problems, we will address them and we will do it effectively and in keeping with their perspective on what a just police force would do.”

It’s been more than two years since white Officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown outside of St. Louis, Mo., sparked violent clashes between protesters and police, yet the frustration in the African-American community over law enforcement tactics hasn’t waned.

To many, the deaths of Brown and other black males—Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile—at the hands of police are recent proof that American law and order has been less about peacekeeping than hostile occupation. Under the banner of “Black Lives Matter,” pastors, activists, youth and even professional athletes have used street protests, cell phone videos and the grassroots connections of social media to scrutinize police conduct and show how the criminal justice system has mistreated African Americans.

Some police and their supporters have pushed back with cries of “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” to argue that law enforcement isn’t targeting minorities, but simply fighting crime under dangerous circumstances.

The lethal potential in this conflict was realized in July, when a black Army veteran, allegedly angered by police shootings of black men, killed five police officers and injured nine others in a Dallas ambush.

Roberto Patricio Korzeniewicz, chair of UMD’s sociology department, and Carlos Acosta, the PGPD’s inspector general, thought Prince George’s County could be the place for a new start. Although UMD and PGPD had casually discussed partnering in the past, Acosta says, the department has gradually become less insular and more willing to open up to outside organizations for advice and input.

“Academic institutions may not always give you good news, and that’s OK,” he says. “That’s the only way we get better on anything.”

And the knowledge of UMD Associate Professors Kris Marsh and Rashawn Ray—experts on race and bias—was available at a critical time.

“Police forces across the country are realizing the only way they can deal with these tensions is engaging in dialogue and transparency with the community,” Korzeniewicz says. “Hopefully, the university can play some part.”

With the recruits in December, Marsh and Ray started by demonstrating how pernicious stereotypes remain in an ostensibly enlightened society. On one day of training, Ray flashed through a PowerPoint presentation with social media photos: white college students at a “gangsta” party, complete with blackface and malt liquor bottles; a middle-aged white couple dressed for Halloween as former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice and his wife, complete with darkened skin and a black eye to evoke a highly publicized domestic violence incident.

“We can keep denying this stuff exists,” Ray told the rows of uniformed student officers. “Or we can say, ‘What do we do about it?’”

On a rainy night, a police officer in his cruiser notices a car making an illegal U-turn. Flashing his lights, the officer pulls the driver over, gets out and approaches the lowered driver’s-side window.

In this common scenario, the two individuals make snap judgments that could lead to an extraordinary outcome. Will the police officer see a threat? Will the driver be afraid for his or her safety as well?

Marsh and Ray have conducted implicit bias sessions for two sets of recruits in the PGPD academy, educating them on the definitions and issues of race, stereotyping and discrimination, along with research on how these manifest themselves in policing. They want to make police officers think harder and longer about their actions on the job.

“We’re hoping that when they see a Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, that they pause,” Ray says. “One second in these interactions is a very long time.”

Research has shed light on what biases police and the general public hold and how they may play out in law enforcement. For example, a 2014 study of police officers and college students published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that both groups were likely to perceive black children as older and less innocent than their white peers. A 2015 study published in the science journal PLOS ONE found that unarmed black Americans are more than three times as likely to be shot by police compared to unarmed white Americans, with no relationship found with the local crime rate.

Non-lethal policing has also been examined. Investigations of cities such as San Francisco, Ferguson, Chicago and Greensboro, N.C., found that police stopped black motorists far more often than white drivers even though contraband was found at a higher rate with Caucasians.

Most notably, a federal judge ruled the New York City police department’s “stop and frisk” program unconstitutional in 2013; while 83 percent of those detained and searched were black or Hispanic, those groups made up only half of the city’s population. Of the 4.4 million stops there between January 2004 and June 2012, 88 percent led to no further police action.

The goal for Marsh and Ray is to shift police officers away from the initial judgments that lead to bad results.

“We have to unpack what ‘the appearance’ is highlighting,” Marsh says. “When you say ‘appearance,’ what’s that a code word for?”

For part of the two-day December training, cadets watched a video from a “Candid Camera”-type television program showing the differences in how bystanders reacted to individuals stealing a bike in a park. A white teenager was given the benefit of the doubt, and largely ignored; a black teenager was confronted immediately, often with aggression; a white female teenager was frequently offered assistance by men.

The discomfort with the video was palpable. Some cadets questioned the validity of the experiment: The black kid’s clothes were much baggier, and the white kid appeared older and gave more evasive answers to questions. Maybe a different day in that park, or a different park altogether, would produce a much different result.

But when the gender segment received almost no such challenges, a few cadets stood to ask why everyone was so quick to rationalize away the race scenario.

It was a window into how implicit bias doesn’t just function on race—it’s part of the human tendency to divide people into groups, from gender to the fans of rival sports teams.

“People don’t think in individual terms,” Ray told them. “You all aren’t normal citizens anymore. You all are officers and supposed to approach all people the same way. That’s what makes you special.”

In a county where African Americans make up almost 65 percent of the population, Craig Daugherty knows he will sometimes face hostility while on the job.

The 31-year-old former Marine, who is white, applied to the PGPD while Ferguson was being roiled by protests. Although he admits it “weighed on my mind,” he says his concerns were lessened by the attraction to a camaraderie and dedication to service similar to what he found in the military.

Like every other police officer in his training class, which was instructed in part by Ray and Marsh and graduated in February 2016, Daugherty has no familiarity with the “before” part of “before and after” Ferguson.

“We are in the limelight,” he says. “It’s just like in the military; we are all under the same canopy.”

So when Daugherty pulls someone over or responds to a call and senses immediate suspicion of him as a white police officer (“Does it happen on occasion? Yes. Is it a majority? No.”), his first move is to establish a calm presence and de-escalate the tension.

“Yes, I’m a police officer,” he says, “but I am a person just like you.”

Prince George’s County is an intriguing laboratory for implicit bias training, as it is unusually diverse racially and economically. Its median household income (nearly $74,000) is 38 percent higher than the United States as a whole, and it is home to some of the wealthiest African-American communities in the country. Yet along with Baltimore City and Worcester County, Prince George’s has many of the highest crime rates in Maryland since 1975.

The U.S. Department of Justice has investigated PGPD twice, mandating reforms to the department’s canine unit and use-of-force policies in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Prior to the second investigation, the Washington Post reported that the pgpd had shot and killed more people per officer than any other comparable force in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000.

Stawinski believes the relationship between the PGPD and the county’s residents has dramatically improved since then and stands in contrast to troubled areas around the United States.

“Increasingly, what I’m hearing at Costco is, ‘I’m glad things aren’t like that here,’” he says.

Stawinski wants to create a standardized approach to producing police officers—in his words, “accelerate the maturation” of a recruit. Unlike fields such as medicine, accounting or law, training practices for police vary wildly from department to department. PGPD, he believes, has an opportunity to make a new national mold.

“If I can collaborate and learn things and be on the front edge of developing best practices, then not only can we make policing in Prince George’s County better,” he says, “we can make policing in America better.”

When she enrolled at UMD, Unique Feliciana ’14 thought she would one day open her own pet store. But while working in the university’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, she discovered an interest in law and the history of policing, and a distaste for sitting behind a desk.

The native of Fort Washington graduated from the same PGPD academy class as Daugherty. In her first several months on the job, she noticed that people tend to stare warily at police officers arriving on a scene, and that some bystanders record the interactions on their cell phones. Yet she hasn’t second-guessed her career decision.

“I’d rather get out there and do the job so we have officers that are doing the job for the right reasons,” Feliciana says. “I’d rather get out there and be the good seed.”

As a black woman in a police uniform, she has received a different sort of animus than Daugherty. Feliciana recalls one young girl telling her that she should be ashamed to be on the force. Another time, a friend of her father’s posted on social media that working for the police department is like working for the Ku Klux Klan.

“You guys complain about corrupt police, but when a genuine person wants to be police, you shame them,” she remembers thinking. “Do you really want change?”

The starting point for change, Stawinski says, is in the tens of millions of routine interactions each year between citizens and cops—not the ones that cost lives and launch protests.

“There is a small group of officers involved in these kinds of confrontations,” he says. “Some of them are malicious and wrong, and those officers are being prosecuted. Some of those are honest mistakes and they’ve got bad results. That’s where I think we lose the fight—if we are too much on the side of ‘we are all going to get ambushed,’ if we are too much on the side of ‘everybody’s out to do harm.’ Those are the fringes.”

It’s a tough proposition when a police officer in Oakland or Seattle can have just as much of an effect on local perception as one in the PGPD. From the moment a cadet enters training to when he or she retires, the pressure is on to make sure each interaction starts from a neutral position.

“We, in a uniform, have to treat people uniformly,” Acosta says. “Just as importantly, society needs to see that.” TERP


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