WESTAMPTON — All 900 police officers in Burlington County will soon be trained to recognize the unconscious prejudices they may have and examine how they can affect interactions with the community as well as their performance on the job.
On Tuesday, in partnership with the Burlington County Chiefs Association, the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office began to train representatives from all county police departments on implicit bias.
Implicit bias is the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect one's understanding, actions, and decisions, according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. The biases are often developed over one’s life beginning at a very early age through individual experiences.
The training, conducted by the national training agency Fair and Impartial Policing, aims to help police officers recognize any implicit bias they may have and how to neutralize it.
“It's sifting through the perception of what you may believe, and getting to the point of what you see,” Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said. “Officers are trained to act upon what they observe, not what they think they're seeing. This is to get through to that and to respond to the public based upon what the person is actually doing in front of them.”
Coffina announced his office’s intention to hold implicit bias training for all police officers in the county following the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests against police brutality.
The prosecutor hopes the training will result in better relationships and increased trust between police departments and the communities they serve.
“I want the public to believe that the police are as well-intentioned as I believe they are. And I want the police to recognize why there are members of the community that don't see it that way,” Coffina said. “Once we have that understanding, I think we can reinforce the bridge that we have in the community.”
In opening remarks to the officers being trained on Tuesday, Coffina noted that not all biases are negative but still could result in a negative outcome.
"Sometimes it's a positive (bias), but it's there and frankly as a police officer the hyper-vigilance that you have to have could work against you if your implicit bias is too positive. You see something that your implicit bias maybe lets your guard down for somebody, whereas if it was anybody else you would be hyper-vigilant.”
After the two-day training, the 30 or so representatives will go back to their respective police departments and provide training for the remaining officers.
In addition, next week the prosecutor’s office will host implicit bias training sessions for police command staffs across the county, as well as a session with around 30 community leaders explaining what their respective local police departments are doing to promote fair and impartial policing, how implicit biases might impact on both police officers and community member as well as how they can recognize, reduce, and manage their own biases.
Boaz Matlack, a community activist and member of the county’s new minority and equality rights task force, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the change the training could bring to local communities.
Matlack, 21, of Medford Township, helped organize eight Black Lives Matter protest marches in towns across the county this summer. In August, he was named to the county’s new task force.
“It’s definitely not cheap, so I appreciate their willingness to do that in light of recent events and recent calls for reform,” Matlack said Wednesday.
However, if it's just the rank and file officers learning about implicit bias from a fellow officer, “I’m not sure how effective that is,” Matlack said.
For Matlack, the real change is when all levels of a police department — from the chief on down — understand the ramifications of the biases they may have.
“That’s how it all starts,” Matlack said. “Really seeing someone and having a feeling — you can’t necessarily help that — and asking yourself why you feel that way … thinking about it and understanding where that feeling is coming from. Is it from evidence, knowledge and experience or assumptions and ideas that haven’t really manifested?”
The county’s minority and equality rights task force was started by Burlington County Board Director Felicia Hopson.
Hopson said Wednesday the implicit bias training is “a great step” in moving the county forward toward equality.
"We all know that it's going to take a lot to get rid of systemic racism,” Hopson said. “And these small steps that we're taking here in Burlington County is reflective of the passion that our leaders have for wanting us to move forward, and move in the right direction so everyone is treated equally.”
On Aug. 27, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation requiring all New Jersey police departments to undergo implicit bias and cultural diversity training once every five years.
However, Coffina hopes to have the training completed in Burlington County in the next six months.
Some departments have conducted implicit bias training on their own, but for many police officers it will be the first time they are exposed to the training, according to Coffina.
"I don't want to wait for the state to put its program together. I think it's important enough, the (Burlington County) chiefs think it's important enough ... to move ahead quickly, and to honor the commitment that I made to bring this to every police officer in the county.”