Pittsfield Police tackle bias

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PITTSFIELD >> With headlines perpetually highlighting how some police officers are doing the wrong things, police departments are coming forward locally and nationally to advocate how many others are making an effort to do the right things when it comes to community policing and offering a proactive and progressive perspective on how to serve and protect the public that pays for them.

On Friday, coinciding with National Coffee With a Cop Day — part of an ongoing positive policing and community outreach practice — the Pittsfield Police Department continued its training series on addressing bias and policing procedures.

City Chief of Police Michael Wynn said Friday's three and a half-hour small group training was the seventh or eighth such session he's led for the department, and will continue to hold them this fall until every personnel member on the department's roster has gone through it.

"This isn't a direct mandate but it's something Massachusetts departments have rolled out in response to the President's Task Force report and recommendations on 21st Century Policing," Wynn said of the initiative organized by President Barack Obama's administration.

That document, published in May 2015, helped inform new aspects of police training now used across the commonwealth. Over this past summer, Wynn joined more than a dozen local police chiefs and other members of law enforcement in Washington, D.C. for a briefing on the report, as well as some training with national colleagues on topics such as officer safety, wellness, implicit bias, social media and the White House's Police Data Initiative (PDI), among other programs. The PDI data and other national data have also been aggregated in the Police Foundation's Public Safety Open Data Portal, another national initiative to make information on incident reports, arrests, and officers involved in a shooting more transparent and accessible to participating agencies.

These data initiatives supplement — and are arguably a response to — an independent reporting project by The Washington Post which resulted in the creation of an interactive public database on national police shootings for 2015 and 2016 informed by news reports, public records, internet databases and original reporting since no data could initially be found elsewhere.

Wynn noted in Friday's training that when The Post study was proposed, it sought to expose racial bias in police shootings. But according to the 2015 data, of the 991 people shot dead by police in 2015, the majority — 495 people — were white, mostly male, mostly between the ages of 18 to 44 years old. Of the 991 shot and killed by police, 782 of these people were found to be in possession of or aggressively wielding a deadly weapon, The Post reported.

Of the nine people killed by police in Massachusetts in 2015, all were male; five were white, two were black and two were Hispanic, and none were unarmed. Wynn said these lower rates are likely due to the fact that Massachusetts holds statewide standards of practicing integrated use of force where deadly force is seen as a last resort. He also noted that while a standard practice in Massachusetts, other states don't hold officers accountable to the duty of rendering first aid to any person they encounter, regardless of whether they're a suspect.

Referring back to The Post investigation, Wynn said that while The Post believed that the majority of deadly police shootings were based on racial bias, "that doesn't match the data ... but you don't hear about that."

So far in 2016, The Post has documented 738 cases of people who have been shot and killed by police.

Wynn reminded his staff that the above statistics don't mean that bias doesn't exist, and it also doesn't mean that all deaths by fatal police force are justified. That's why he said Friday's training is of great import.

Over the course of the morning, Wynn offered an overview of how and why mistrust between police and citizens continues to persist; how explicit bias and unconscious or implicit bias can affect a person's behavior or ability to make rational decisions; how police should rise above bias when following the procedures of police authority and how the way police behave and act can either positively or negatively affect the integrity of the role of law enforcement in communities.

The latter, said Wynn, is why police involvement in non-enforcement activities, like Coffee with a Cop, and the national and locally practiced Hoops Not Crime initiative, are also important in establishing trust with the public.

In several training exercises designed to illustrate explicit and implicit biases, Wynn showed his trainees pictures of inanimate objects, like trucks of different brands, and a common white plastic patio chair and asked the staff to describe qualities they commonly associated with that product. For example, while the group knew that the chair was white, had four legs and six back slats, they also commented on how that style of chair is associated with being "cheap," "purchased at Walmart," "made in China" and is known to easily break.

"We know it's a chair, but we also have certain ideas about it," said Wynn to the group. He said that sometimes those characterizations are true, but they can also be untrue.

"It's uncomfortable, but we have to get comfortable saying that we have a bias against bias," said the city police chief. "If we don't understand bias, we can't override it."

Reporter Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.


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