Amid protests and change, Iowa police training on implicit bias varies

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The Iowa Law Enforcement Academy plans to add an implicit bias course to their fall basic academy. Other courses covered the term in past sessions, but this will be the first course solely devoted to the topic. (Photo by Danielle Gehr / IowaWatch)

In 2015, the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy lacked training on implicit bias.

As a cadet there then, Natasha Greene sought discussions on her own about some of the mistaken beliefs officers might hold of others, such as expecting a black person to be dangerous or more crime prone from stereotypes, ideas that could come from television or passed from family and friends.

Now an Iowa State Police Department officer, Greene said these conversations were uncomfortable, as awkward as telling someone the zipper on their pants is down but you still do it. 

“If I’m talking to somebody I care about and their fly’s down, of course I’m going to tell them their fly’s down because it would be more harmful for me to just let them carry on without knowing,” Greene said.

Today those discussions are more serious and more uncomfortable as the May 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police brought the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for defunding police. Implicit bias and training officers became part of the national conversation.

In Iowa, protests and demonstrations, at times destructive, ensued after Floyd’s death. In June, lawmakers and Gov. Kim Reynolds responded with a law banning the use of chokeholds and requiring yearly implicit bias training for in-service officers.

The protests and cases continued. In Indianola last week, Simpson College classes were canceled for a daylong and peaceful protest in which Black students demanded action from school leaders. In Rochester, N.Y., last week video of police apprehending David Prude was released. Prude later died after that March incident. In Wisconsin, protests persist after the police Aug. 23 shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, who is now paralyzed.

Judy Bradshaw,
director of the
Iowa Law
Enforcement
Academy

The ILEA, which trains hundreds of the state’s officers, added the implicit bias training last fall to its future classes, Director Judy Bradshaw said. This action is several years behind other Iowa police training programs and other states, a monthslong IowaWatch review found. 

Before attending the academy, Greene, whose family includes minorities, confronted her unknown racial biases while working for an organization for victims of sexual assault and abuse.

“I think it’s important for people to also understand that while their intentions may be to treat everyone equally, or that they truly believe that they’re able to look impartially on every situation, psychology just says that that’s not the case,” Greene said.

‘Human condition’

Implicit bias is a “human condition,” said Kevin Pokorny, who owns a Des Moines consulting company and has taught businesses and police departments on the topic.” It is the idea that people all have biases, often unbeknownst to them, that could affect decisions, behaviors and actions. 

People hold unknown biases about religions, race, gender and age groups, said Amanda Greider, Cedar Rapids Police Department public safety program manager. Greider, who is white, teaches implicit bias at their police academy. 

The topic is often part of the conversation after police killings of Black people such as Floyd because it is believed these biases can affect quick-second decisions officers make on a daily basis. 

“The brain categorizes things very quickly … in our subconscious,” Pokorny said, “to the extent that when we get involved in situations where we have to make decisions about people or places or things, our brain just makes unconscious associations, and evaluations about it and we act on it.”

Implicit bias training around the state

The Iowa Law Enforcement Academy currently includes several courses on race relations, cultural competency and de-escalation but never a class focused on the officers’ implicit biases. 

The 625-hour program averages between 76 to 96 trainees a session, or 228 to 288 trainees a year. 

The Cedar Rapids Regional Police Academy added implicit bias training four years ago.

Greider said the push to add the program came from their police chief, Wayne Jerman, after he said other programs around the country incorporate it. Even with the pandemic, the annual two-hour training for their officers will take place virtually. 

“It has to be top of mind to be successful,” Greider said. 

The Des Moines Police Academy and the Iowa Department of Public Safety offer courses that include implicit bias like the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, but do not have a specific implicit bias course. 

Bradshaw, who formerly served as Des Moines police chief, said now is the time for those in law enforcement to “sit back and listen.”

“It’s truly about respect, and that’s showing respect on both sides,” Bradshaw said. “Part of the problem is that we’ve created these divides, and the ‘we/they.’ So really the discussion is: how do we come together and strengthen the relationship?

“How do we get that trust back and build on it?”

Training around the state

The ILEA council aoversees regional police academies in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, the Iowa Department of Public Safety, and the Hawkeye Community Technical College and Western Iowa Technical Community College police programs –– though their coverage of cultural competency and implicit bias looks different at each agency. 

The new hires at the Cedar Rapids Regional Police Academy have taken 3.5 hours of implicit bias training since 2016. The program also includes four hours of instruction on cultural competency, an hour on race relations, two hours on hate crimes and an hour on civil rights.

Cedar Rapids officers also take two hours of implicit bias training annually.

Other Iowa academies include implicit bias training but incorporate it into their cultural competency courses. 

The Iowa Department of Public Safety has a four-hour de-escalation course, implemented in 1993 as verbal judo. The four-hour cultural responsive law enforcement course, which included implicit bias, was added in the early 2000s. 

In an email, DPS Lt. David Halverson wrote 10 officers were certified in their fair and impartial policing curriculum that focuses on the science of implicit bias. Iowa DPS plans to expand this to the rest of their officers this year.

  • ABOUT THE IOWA LAW ENFORCEMENT ACADEMY: The academy offers 16-week basic training, 625 hours. The program averages between 76 to 96 trainees, or 228 to 288 trainees a year. Due to Covid-19, the program moved online.

The Des Moines Police Academy includes five hours of a cultural awareness course, which was created in 2017. Sgt. Paul Parizek wrote in an email implicit bias training is included in this course and their 44 hours of critical incident training. In-service officers have taken two hours of implicit bias training annually since 2017. 

The practices also vary from state to state. 

The University of Illinois’ Police Institute offers an optional nine-hour course on police in a multiracial society, which includes implicit bias training. Missouri requires an hour of racial profiling training annually. 

Bradshaw said the academy needs to do more research to determine how many hours of implicit bias will be incorporated into their program. 

Changes in Iowa ‘bittersweet’

The death of Floyd sparked calls to action across the country. 

In Iowa, the governor, Reynolds, signed a bipartisan police reform bill June 12 after it passed unanimously in the Iowa House and Senate. Iowa is one of 11 states to enact legislation and Iowa and New York were the first to do so, according to data tracked by the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

The bill, on top of creating more police accountability and putting restrictions on chokeholds, required the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy to create and disseminate yearly training on bias prevention and de-escalation. (Reynolds also signed an executive order to restore felon voting rights.)

Legislators like Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, said the action was a first step, but more needs to be done. 

“It was bittersweet because I understood what it took to get here but I also understand that this was an easy first step,” Smith said. “So now it’s maybe a little bit of frustration with people who are willing to stand up and say that they were supportive of equity, equality, and justice in some scenarios. I want to see where they stand on this when it’s not so posh to do it, when it’s not so convenient.”

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Smith and other Democratic representatives wrote House File 2646, which would have required each state and local law enforcement agency to collect data on each traffic, bicycle or pedestrian stop, to be reported July 1 each year.

The agencies would report the race and ethnicity of the person stopped by an officer, paired with what the reason for the stop, whether force was used and if a search was conducted.

This language did not progress this legislative session, even though police reform across the country is data-driven. Smith said Reynolds rejected the data study and worked with the Senate to draft the training portion of the bill.

Reynolds’ office did not respond to a request to comment asking about why the data study was rejected.

Smith said the data could have created more specific training for Iowa officers. 

The bill and implicit bias training are a start, but individuals get to reflect also, said Sharon Zanders-Ackiss, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement special projects organizer. Iowa CCI is a community activist group based in Des Moines. The group worked with the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and ACLU of Iowa to get a racial profiling ordinance passed through the Des Moines City Council in June.

“You can have all the implicit bias training in the world, but if you’re not changing as an individual and how you can see people that don’t look like yourself, well, training may not necessarily help you,” Zanders-Ackiss said. “If it did, we wouldn’t keep having the same problems that we’re having.”

Zanders-Ackiss said she wants to see more of a focus on de-escalation, instruction on how to resolve a situation without physical force. 

Mixed results? 

There isn’t clear evidence implicit bias training works. 

A 2017 meta-analysis in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found implicit bias training could have an impact on implicit measures but little evidence shows impact on explicit behavior. Studies on implicit bias training showed that white people could learn the correct answers for a bias quiz but did not retain the information, according to the Harvard Review. 

Smith, the state lawmaker, said one of the priorities when drafting police reform legislation was holding officers accountable. The Iowa Attorney General can now investigate deaths caused by law enforcement and block the hiring officers with prior felonies. 

Bradshaw agreed the training piece needs to be paired with accountability. 

“The accountability part is purely cultural with law enforcement entities and agencies,” Bradshaw said. “We can train you, and you are going to go back to your own culture. You are going to go back to the personality of your police department and you are going to go back to doing things your way if the strategies and the procedures remain the same.”

How bias training came to ILEA

The Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, based in Johnston, is overseen by a council, comprised of current and former police chiefs, officers and private citizens, that assists, advises and approves the curriculum. The council has one Latino member and the rest are white. Seven members are male and three are female. 

After the fall curriculum review, the academy’s council recommended a recognizing bias course be incorporated into the basic academy. 

The academy educates officers from departments across the state. The vast majority of sheriffs’ deputies around the state train there, Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, president of the ILEA council, wrote in an email to IowaWatch. Linn County has the second-largest sheriff’s office in Iowa.

Brian Gardner,
Linn County sheriff and
president of the
Iowa Law Enforcement
Academy Council

The academy’s decision to include bias training in the fall basic academy was independent of the recent protests, though President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended the training following the Ferguson unrest in 2014. The 2014 mass demonstrations came after an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown.

The future officers will take five hours of cultural competency and two hours of race relations, according to the academy’s training schedule. The training also includes four hours of use of force, eight hours of verbal defense –– a term for deescalation –– and an hour of ethics and professionalism.

In the last week, trainees take a class called “blue courage,” which helps officers identify why they joined the force, what their role means and their biases.

Iowa Code requires 30 hours of training be devoted to human behavior courses, which include studying community relations, ethics and ethnic and minority groups.

Other ways the training is taught

Outside training hours required, practices tend to differ as well.

“These are grownups, these are adult learners that we are teaching at the police academy. It’s not like we are teaching sixth-graders where there is some room for maneuvering and shaping and conditioning of people’s minds,” Bradshaw said. “For folks to think that training’s the answer to this, we’re just a piece of this.”

Officer Natasha Greene (left) poses with students and a former Iowa State officer at the 2019 Destination Iowa State, a welcome week for incoming students. As an engagement and inclusion officer, Greene’s job includes creating relationships with marginalized groups around campus and educating fellow officers on diversity and inclusion. (Photo courtesy of Natasha Green)

The Des Moines Police Department focused on community policing in the mid-90s, Ackiss-Zanders said, something she hopes they return to. During that time, Ackiss-Zanders said she saw more officers in Black-majority neighborhoods, getting out of their patrol cars and interacting with the people.

“Right now the police talk about a murder happens here. They can’t get any information from the community,” Ackiss-Zanders said. “Well, how about this. If you continue building relationships with people in the community, I’m sure you probably get a bunch of information.”

This is the concept at Iowa State where Greene is an engagement and inclusion officer. The EIO officers, on top of typical police responsibilities, create relationships with minority groups on campus and educate fellow officers on cultural competency.

The EIO model works partially because officers learn lessons of bias from their fellow officers, Greene said. The Cedar Rapids Police Academy’s implicit bias class is taught by former officer Grieder. She said a lot of the training has to do with trust since officers are sharing their biases. 

“My background (as an officer) is really crucial, otherwise they just make this assumption that this is a person who doesn’t get our job,” Greene said, adding a fellow officer could also be dismissed if there is a bias against them. “I think there are benefits to both, which is why we do utilize both internal and external sources.”

Danielle Gehr, an Iowa State University graduate, fulfilled a summer 2020 reporting internship for IowaWatch.