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In the Wake of Ferguson, Athens Police Work to Root Out Racial Bias


Most Americans assume that the police learned their lesson after the L.A. riots in 1992, but the events of last fall proved otherwise. The circumstances of the August shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American fresh out of high school, by a Ferguson, MO, police officer sparked national conversations on racial bias in policing. The Ferguson community demanded transparency from a police department that was barely forthcoming, and the result was demonstrations and social unrest that persist to this day. The frustration was exacerbated by the death of Eric Garner, who was placed in a questionable “headlock” on a public sidewalk by New York City officer Daniel Pantaleo.

Many local police departments are examining their own practices and pursuing training that addresses implicit bias, a concept also known in media and academic circles as institutionalized racism or sexism—a bias (most commonly related to race but also to gender and perceived sexual orientation) against certain groups that is learned from social cues and common stereotypes. An example would be the fear that some might feel in the presence of a tall black male, even if they have never been attacked by a man of color or by anyone else, for that matter. That fear is not based on any real-life experience, but instead is the result of a lifetime of stimuli painting men of color as violent and aggressive.

It was this exact type of fear that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson cited in his grand jury testimony, when he explained his justification for killing an unarmed 18-year-old black male.

“When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” said Wilson, who is the same height as Brown. “He looked up at me and had the most intense, aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon; that’s how angry he looked.”   

The details of the incident will be debated for years, leaving many to wonder if Wilson felt an implicit bias towards Brown that influenced his decision to use deadly force on an unarmed teenager. The fallout has been catastrophic for Ferguson, both in the realms of public opinion in and quality of life for the local community, and their distrust of their own police department is inspiring lots of Americans to look twice at their own local patrols.

Fair and Impartial Policing

The Athens-Clarke County Police Department wants to stop such incidents before they even start by making transparency a top priority.

“The profession [of policing], I consider it to be a closed system,” ACCPD Administrator Justin Gregory says of standoffish responses from law enforcement in the wake of a civilian shooting. He acknowledges that is because of law enforcement’s own defensiveness to judgment from the communities they serve, but such an attitude does no one any good.

“We can put up our dukes and be mad, or we can share part of who we are and do a better job,” Gregory says. He believes that transparency and bias training is an essential part of effective police work, so ACCPD has been a step ahead for the past three years with their Fair and Impartial Policing (FIP) class, which is a training session that every Athens police officer is required to attend. The class is open to the public and is taught by Gregory and Lt. Richard Odum.

While some members of law enforcement have spoken dismissively about the existence of implicit bias and the need for bias-related training, ACCPD’s training instructors do not. Gregory, a 20-year veteran of the force and commander of the department’s Special Response Team (known as SWAT in other cities) shares the opinion of the recent Justice Department investigation finding that Wilson’s unchecked implicit bias was a key component of Mike Brown’s shooting, and he feels that the lack of transparency can be blamed for the intense aftermath that is still raging on in Ferguson.

“The lack of information-sharing was definitely a catalyst in that situation,” Gregory says. Our own local police department has very specific guidelines in place for sharing information with the public, and they do so gladly as long as that transparency would not hinder an investigation.  

ACCPD, luckily, has not had to deal with a situation like Brown or Garner’s since the 1995 shooting death of Edward Wright, an unarmed black man, at the hands of officers Pat Mercardante and Sean Potter. Wright was nude on a residential street and having what his mother described as a religious experience. (The officers testified that Wright tackled Potter, then, after being pepper-sprayed and hit with a baton, charged him again; Potter shot Wright five times before Wright knocked away his gun.)

Mercardante and Potter were cleared of any wrongdoing in Wright’s death, much like Wilson and Pantaleo, and Athenians responded in kind. The local reaction was swift and loud with public organizing, demonstrations, memorial music festivals, a multi-million dollar lawsuit and, of course, a call for local law enforcement to handle these situations better.  

Law enforcement in Athens did not respond to the outcry with tear gas and the National Guard. Instead, they added five more weeks of training for police academy graduates, with one week dedicated to crisis intervention with mentally ill subjects, as well as the mandatory FIP class for all officers and detectives. Crisis training is now a requirement for promotion.

Gregory describes transparency as one of the department’s primary organizational values, one whose importance was highlighted by the response to Wright’s death.

“There wasn’t a vision of policing and how the community fits into that,” he says. “You will not stop crime simply by putting handcuffs on everybody.” It’s best for police departments to be forthcoming with information in the wake of civilian shooting deaths, lest they want to go down in the history books alongside the LAPD riots and #ICantBreathe. And more importantly, lack of transparency just isn’t good police work.  

“Share what you can,” Gregory says. “Lack of sharing info creates a lot of stress in the public. We need to enhance and promote trust on the part of the people we serve. If all you can say is, ‘We’re law enforcement’…” He tsks and shakes his head. “It’s 2015.  Come on.”

Gregory adds, “We have the absolute goal of being a transparent organization, without sacrificing the progress of an investigation. Inviting the public [to FIP training] is part of that.”

Engaging the Public

The FIP classes are open to the public, and Flagpole attended one on Feb. 27. The goal of these classes is to train officers to recognize their own implicit biases and how those might cause an officer to “fill in the blanks” instead of asking questions when dealing with both offenders and victims of crime. During the six-hour class, Gregory and Odum often engaged civilians and asked their opinions on situations and how they would react during certain interactions with law enforcement. The public was also encouraged to ask their own questions about police procedure, offer up hypothetical situations and ask officers about their opinions on the national conversation happening around their profession right now. Most impressive was that the class did not simply provide checklists for officers on what to do or say in tense situations. The discussion mainly revolved around the actual psychology of implicit bias and how it affects the way we interact as human beings.

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From left, Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services Administrator Mike Wharton, ACCPD Senior Officer Jimmy Johnson and New Grove Baptist Church pastor James Washington discuss law enforcement and community relations during a Feb. 27 Fair and Impartial Policing class.

There’s implicit bias towards people of color, but then there are also biases against police within communities of color—a feeling that Odum and Gregory both acknowledged as legitimate.

Racism is real, history is real, and people have a right to their feelings. “You must have compassion and empathy for [people] who don’t trust police,” Odum said to the officers in the class, going on to explain that people and communities have a right to feel distrust after having negative experiences with law enforcement.

“You didn’t create our history,” Odum said, “but you must police within the context of our history. With certain groups, it’s hard to promote police legitimacy.” He cited the 1969 Stonewall riots and the 1991 Rodney King beating as examples of situations that have impaired the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

Profiling has long raised concerns, and Gregory stressed to the officers present not to profile the wrong thing. “You cannot do police work without profiling,” he explained, “but what are we profiling? Criminal behavior. Policing based on stereotypes is unsafe, ineffective and unjust.”  

Officers present cited an incident years ago where a familiar local drug addict and prostitute was raped, beaten severely and left in the street. She made it to the porch of a resident who called police but did not let her inside. When paramedics arrived, they rolled their eyes and turned to leave, assuming that it was just another false alarm for a homeless person. The officer present, recognizing the miscarriage of justice about to play out in front of him, instructed the EMTs to do their jobs. An investigation determined that this woman’s attacker had also assaulted two other women in Athens, and his hunting ground was near student housing.

This man’s capture and life sentence are a direct result of an investigation prompted by an attack on a homeless black drug-addicted prostitute, the type of person that Athenians might step over without regard. If the officer had disregarded the bias of the EMTs and let them leave, the injured woman could have lost her life, and Athens might still have a serial rapist on the loose.

While much of the conversation revolved around race, the class also addressed bias towards attractive people—assuming that someone who is “pretty” would not commit a crime. Participants viewed a video made by a hidden camera that featured a model-perfect blonde white woman stealing a bicycle in public, as well as a young black man doing the same. The blonde had many offers of assistance from passers-by, all of whom giggled when she admitted that she was stealing the bike. The black male was confronted by passers-by, surrounded, yelled at, had his tools stolen and had the police called several times. All the people interviewed insisted that they would call the police on anyone stealing in public, but the hidden camera showed the truth of human nature.  

What’s really scary is imagining that these passers-by might have been police officers. Would a cop have assisted a pretty blonde woman with a theft while calling SWAT on a black male doing the same thing?  Gregory and Odum want to work toward procedural justice—making sure that all protocols are followed to the letter and all decisions made are based on criminal behavior and not on biases of any kind. They stress that procedural justice can be achieved through fair and impartial policing, which then increases a department’s legitimacy with the public. Officers must acknowledge the humanity of the public, and the public must do the same.  

“Just because we can do something constitutionally, does that always means that we should?” Gregory asked hypothetically. “So when we talk about the use of force, we also talk about restraint. We focus on other skill sets to keep it from ever occurring”—skills like recognizing bias, unlearning bias and good communication from department heads and from officers on the street level.  

“Dialogue is the No. 1 way to address use of force,” Gregory said.

Too much pride can also be the cause of missteps in the field, and Odum encouraged officers to be forthcoming with explanations and apologies when mistakes happen. A young officer described apologizing profusely to a civilian after mistaking his car for that of the suspect in an attempted murder. Other officers described situations where explanations and apologies have defused situations that could have ended badly.

Imagine if Pantaleo had just explained himself to Garner, instead of wrapping an arm around his neck.

As Odum put it: “It ain’t a sign of weakness to say you’re sorry.”