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Duluth police guard against bias: Local agencies train on ‘impartial policing’ techniques

Sgt. Kelly Greenwalt and Joel Olejnicak listen to a presentation during a police bias training session at the Duluth Police Department recently. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)1 / 3
Brenda Leffler Harteau with Fair & Impartial Policing leads a presentation during a police bias training session at the Duluth Police Department recently. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)2 / 3
Sgt. Ryan Morris of the Duluth Police Department listens during a police bias training session at the Duluth Police Department recently. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)3 / 3

DULUTH — Brenda Leffler Harteau started off a recent training session for local law enforcement officers with an anonymous survey.

She wanted to know what officers think when they hear the terms "biased policing" and "racial profiling." No politically correct answers, she requested — just the first words that come to mind.

She received an array of written responses from the 16 officers in the room at Duluth's Public Safety Building:

• "Citizens not getting their way; chance to riot."

• "Lack of compassion, unprofessional, not the norm."

• "Overused term you often see in media."

• "When we automatically do things wrong."

• "Thinking that minorities commit the majority of crimes."

• "Something which is not happening."

The mixed results came as little surprise to Leffler Harteau, a retired Colorado State Patrol administrator who leads police training sessions throughout the country.

"Those are actually some pretty calm responses," she said. "There's a wide difference in how people perceive the national conversation happening across America."

The informal survey was the opening exercise in a daylong course led by Leffler Harteau that seeks to have participants take a different look at the issue of bias.

Over the past few weeks, the Duluth Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies have been participating in training on "fair and impartial policing" techniques — an effort to make decisions based more on reason and less on emotion.

The reality, Leffler Harteau said, is that the issue is not just something drummed up by journalists, politicians or high-ranking police officials. Cops — like all human beings — have biases that can affect their actions and put themselves and others in danger, she said.

"Are there racist cops in police work across the nation?" she asked. "Yes. You know why we have racist cops in policing? Because we have racist people in every single occupation — doctors, lawyers, used-car salesmen, your kids' teachers, the girl you get coffee from every morning at Starbucks. But this idea that there's rampant, explicitly biased behavior is an outdated notion that the community may have."

Instead, Leffler Harteau said, most forms of bias are implicit — that is, they're hard to see, and we as humans don't recognize when we're letting stereotypes affect our decisions.

"These attitudes and concepts can affect our decision-making, if we allow them to," she said. "Even well-intentioned people can engage in biased behavior in the form of implicit bias."

The class takes a science-based approach to the issue — giving real-world examples of how preconceived notions can alter the thought process.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said his entire department would undergo the training, which he called an "effort to ensure officers are just in their actions and guard against implicit bias."

Other agencies, including the University of Minnesota Duluth, Hermantown and Grand Rapids police departments, also have sent officers and supervisors to the training.

Leffler Harteau, who is married to former Minneapolis Police Chief and Duluth native Janeé Harteau, is a senior national instructor for Florida-based Fair and Impartial Policing, LLC. She brings 23 years of experience with the Colorado State Patrol, where she became the first woman to serve as a lieutenant colonel.

She said bias is not just an issue of race. Humans tend to assign stereotypes based on all types of groups: gender, income level, English language abilities, religion, sexual orientation, body shape, disability status.

For police officers, that could mean they use too little or too much force in response to a perceived threat based on erroneous assumptions. It could mean hiring practices that are not inclusive. It could mean certain segments of the community feel left out.

Similarly, she said officers can be painted with a "broad brush" when one is perceived to have acted improperly — as evidenced by the series of high-profile shooting cases involving African Americans across the country in recent years.

"This is about trying to understand how the human brain works," Leffler Harteau said.

Duluth police Lt. Robin Roeser, a night patrol shift commander, attended a recent session specifically tailored to supervisors.

He said law enforcement diversity and bias classes have traditionally been dry and offered little useful information, while putting officers in a defensive position. But Roeser said the new approach has been eye-opening and elicited positive reviews from his officers.

"I think initially most of the cops put this in that same bag, but if you just look at the basic curriculum, it's not anything like that," he said. "You could almost call this a psychology of bias class. That's really what it is."

In addition to helping participants recognize their hidden biases and understand how their life experiences shape their views, the program offers the departments methods to address issues in areas such as recruitment and hiring practices, agency policy, training, supervision and outreach to diverse communities.

Roeser said taking a proactive approach — and not waiting for a critical incident to throw the department and the community into crisis — is important to the police department's mission of building and maintaining trust.

"I think the community is generally very supportive of us, but this training can only make us better," he said. "At the very least, if any one of us can learn anything about ourselves or our backgrounds that might be unconsciously influencing our decisions, that has to be a positive thing."

Likewise, Leffler Harteau said she's been impressed by what she has seen in Duluth, saying the department is "on the right path."

"Sometimes we come in when there's a crisis," she said. "That's not been the case here."

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