Published 2/7/18 in The Sentinel Newspapers

PALMER PARK – Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) announced on Feb. 2 their partnership with the University of Maryland to launch a training program – which will include virtual reality scenarios – that will enable all of their officers to examine and challenge their implicit biases.

“The goal of implicit bias training isn’t to condemn anyone. It is to make a person aware,” PGPD chief Hank Stawinski said. “If you are aware of your lenses, then you can have a thoughtful response instead of a conditioned response.”

This partnership between PGPD and the University of Maryland’s Department of Sociology and the Behavioral and Social Sciences, Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, MLaw program and School of Medicine, to create this initiative began more than two years ago.

“Implicit bias is simply the association that we make between two completely unrelated things,” said Rashawn Ray, an associate professor with the University of Maryland’s sociology department. “Everyone has implicit biases…We have implicit biases about everything from what store might have the best fruit to who might be the best basketball or soccer player.”

Each of the 1,700 PGPD officers will attend a 10-hour session training. There will be 36 sessions overall, with 50 officers attending each one. The program will begin in March and continue through to November.

Each training will include lectures, discussions and virtual reality simulations.

Researchers with the University of Maryland created videos of 90 different scenarios involving individuals officers might have implicit biases against. These include people of different races, with hearing impairments and with autism. As PGPD members undergo these simulations, researchers will be able to measure their physiological data, including the officers’ heartrate and pulse.

“We can give that information back to the training academy,” said Kris Marsh, an associate professor with the University of Maryland’s sociology department. “They can build additional models and train the officers to make sure that we can work through points where they have elevated heartrates, where their pulse goes up, and also all along the way making sure they follow through and think through these biases that they actually have.”

Ray said the researchers can utilize the data on “the positive officers” who “don’t necessarily (have) an increasing heartrate, where we don’t necessarily see their stress levels rise, where we don’t see them have the same level of biases as other officers” to help create recommendations for the police department to improve training.

To prepare for and design the training, researchers with the University of Maryland interviewed more than 100 residents and more than 200 police officers, participated in the Citizens’ Police Academy and joined members of the PGPD on ride-alongs.

The officers will undergo a debriefing after their sessions and will have online access various related videos and to the information researchers collected.

Stawinski said PGPD will spend $150,000 over several years on the program.

“We’re being proactive,” Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III said. “The Justice Department didn’t come in, the FBI didn’t come in, citizens didn’t come in and say, ‘you need to do this.’ We said, ‘we want to make our streets better.’”

However, the U.S. Department of  Justice did open an investigation into the PGPD employment practices in October after officers alleged disparities in the promotion and discipline practices for white and Hispanic and African American officers.

Although the trainings will end in November, Marsh hopes the partnership between the University of Maryland and the PGPD will extend beyond that.

“We’re not saying that this is the silver bullet,” she said. “But what we are saying is that this is a start, and this is a start of a long-term relationship with the police department.”