By: Lorie A. Fridell, Ph.D. Professor of Criminology, University of South Florida; Founder and CEO, Fair and Impartial Policing, LLC

That well-constructed implicit-bias training (IBT) can be effective is indicated by both (a) controlled evaluation studies, and (b) the reports of training participants.

Controlled Studies Evaluating the Effectiveness of IBT

There is a significant and growing body of evaluation research showing that IBT works.

The goals of implicit bias training are to impact (a) attitudes about bias/discrimination, (b) motivation to implement bias-free behavior, (c) intention to use debiasing techniques, and (d) behavior. We report on two sets of studies that assess whether IBT achieves its goals: (a) evaluations of IBT provided to “general audiences” (that is, not to police professionals per se), and (b) a controlled evaluation of IBT provided to police.

Studies of IBT Provided to “General Audiences”

Regarding the first set of studies, the research indicates that implicit-bias trainees (compared to their untrained control-group counterparts) are more aware of bias and concerned about discrimination,1 have increased motivation to behave in a bias-free manner,2 and intend to use bias-reducing and bias-managing techniques.3 These changes to attitudes, motivations and intentions are critically important, as the social psychological literature recognizes them as “proximal requisites of intentional behavior change4 and thus critical to IBT objectives.

And, indeed, research has documented changes in behavior, including reductions in biased behavior, as a result of IBT.5 As one example, university science departments were randomly assigned to receive IBT or not. The departments that received the training subsequently hired more women and minorities compared to control departments that did not receive the training.6

Study of IBT Provided to Police

The first controlled evaluation of implicit bias police training was conducted during the course of FIP’s training of NYPD.7 The independent outcome evaluation assessed the training’s impact on (1) the attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors of line-level officers; and (2) supervisors’ amenability to and implementation of the FIP content.

Consistent with the research reported above (for “general audiences”), the evaluation of FIP showed important changes to attitudes, motivations and intentions:

  • FIP-trained individuals (compared to a control group) are more concerned about discrimination as a social problem and more motivated to act in an unbiased way.
  • They are more likely to recognize that there is bias in policing and that it is a legitimate concern of the public as opposed to merely a “fiction” produced by the media.
  • They are more likely to recognize how implicit biases might affect police professionals, such as understanding that even well-intentioned officers could be impacted by unconscious biases.8

The NYPD/FIP research team did not document changes in racial/ethnic disparities in police activities on the streets of New York and reported this could mean that: (a) the implicit-bias police training did not affect behavior, or (b) the behavior changes were not detected. Regarding “b,” the authors of the NYPD/FIP study report that the null findings do not mean that the training did not change cops’ behavior. Report authors, Robert Worden and Robin Engle—two of the top researchers in criminal justice—acknowledge a number of research-methodology challenges that could explain why, even if FIP did produce changes in behavior, those changes would not have been detected by the research. They list several overlapping factors including, but not limited to: (1) the difficulty of isolating the effects of training on outcomes even in a controlled study, and (2) the contamination of the results from the multiple other disparity-reducing interventions implemented in NYC before/during the FIP training period. The NYPD/FIP researchers cautioned against generalizing from their study—recognizing both the methodological constraints and the unique nature of New York City and the NYPD.

The independent research documented a strong, positive impact of implicit-bias police training on first-line supervisors. The evaluation researchers characterized their results as “remarkable” in terms of the extent to which the FIP-trained supervisors embrace and implement their important roles to (1) monitor their subordinates for signs of biased behavior, and (2) intervene with officers in an effort to correct biased behavior.

The Reports of Training Participants

While post-training “satisfaction surveys” cannot substitute for controlled evaluation research, the findings can supplement it—providing a view of the training from the participant perspective. Although this can be a very sensitive and controversial topic for law enforcement nationally, the overwhelming majority of police professionals of all ranks who have been through the FIP training program rate our training as a “5” on a 5-point scale and similarly rate our trainers as a “5.” Typical comments from trainees are reflected here:

  • In my 12 years of being a police officer in the XXPD I can honestly say that this was by far the best training I’ve received to help me do my job better, safer and serve my community better. … I believe that because of today’s class I will have more tools to become a better police officer.
  • I came to this class against my will. My mind was quickly changed from “this class is a waste of time” to “why have I not had this class sooner in my 20 years of service.”
  • I loved that this class is not about how cops are bad. It was about recognizing problems and how to fix them. I’m sold.
  • Absolutely relevant and essential subject matter for the police world.
  • Powerful material and applications for every-day use on and off duty.

1Carnes, M., Devine, P.G., Isaac, C. Manwell, L.B., Ford, C.E., Byars-Winston, A., Fine, E. & Sheridan, J.T. (2012). Promoting institutional change through bias literacy. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5(2): 63 – 77. Carnes, M., Devine, P.G., Manwell, L.B., Byars-Winston, A., Fine, E., Ford, C.E., Forscher, P., Isaac, C., Kaatz, A., Magua, W., Palta, M. & Sheridan, J. (2015). The effect of an intervention to break the gender bias habit for faculty at one institution: A cluster randomized, controlled trial. Academic Medicine, 90(2): 221 – 230. Devine, P.G., Forscher, P.S., Austin, A.J. & Cox, W.T.L. (2012). Long-term reduction in implicit bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48: 1267 – 1278. Forscher, P.S., Mitamura, C., Dix, E.L., Cox, W.T.L., & Devine, P.G. (2017). Breaking the prejudice habit: Mechanisms, timecourse, and longevity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 72: 133 – 146.
2Carnes et al., 2015. Sekaquaptewa, D., Takahashi, K., Malley, J., Herzog, K. & Bliss, S. (2019). An evidence-based faculty recruitment workshop influences departmental hiring practice perceptions among university faculty. Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion: An International Journal, 38(2): 188 – 210.
3Carnes et al., 2012. Carnes et al., 2015. Devine et al., 2012. Devine, P.G., Forscher, P.S. Cox, W.T.L., Kaatz, A., Sheridan, J. & Carnes, M. (2017). A gender bias-breaking intervention led to increased hiring of female faculty in STEM departments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 73: 211 – 215. Forscher et al., 2017. Sekaquaptewa et al., 2019.
4Carnes et al., 2015, p. 226.
5Burroughs, E.A. et al., (2017). Reducing bias in faculty searches. Notices of the AMS, 64(11): 1304 – 1307. Carnes et al., 2012. Carnes et al., 2015. Devine et al., 2017. Forscher et al., 2017. Russell, J. & Summers, A. (2013). Reflective decision-making, and foster care placements. Psychology, Public Policy & Law, 19: 127 – 136. Smith, J.L., Handley, I.M., Zale, A.V., Rushing, S. & Potvin, M.A. (2015). Now hiring! Empirically testing a three-step intervention to increase faculty gender diversity in STEM. Bioscience, 65(11): 1084 – 1087.
6Smith et al., 2015. Devine et al., 2017. Burroughs et al., 2017.
7Worden, et al., (2020). The impacts of implicit bias awareness training in the NYPD. Unpublished report produced by the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety and the Center for Police Research and Policy.
8The report authors provide the statistical significance for indexes comprised of multiple items, such as those listed above. All of the differences between the FIP-trained and not-FIP trained groups were statistically significant at least at the .05 level; in fact, all but one were significant at the .01 level.