California passes law to test prospective cops for both explicit and implicit bias: a poorly written article in The Washington Post

October 29, 2020 • 10:45 am

This law sounds good in principle, but seems impossible to use as a way of detecting racism in potential hires. The law and its problems are described in a long and poorly-written article in the Washington Post; I’ll have more to say about the writing later.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the skinny, and I’ve condensed an article whose published version is at least three times longer than it need be:

An ambitious new law in California taking aim at potential biases of prospective officers has raised questions and concerns among police officers and experts who fear that if implemented inadequately, the law could undermine its own mission to change policing and the culture of law enforcement.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Sept. 30, will expand the present screening requirements by mandating all law enforcement agencies conduct mental evaluations of peace officer candidates to identify both implicit and explicit biases against race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation to exclude unfit recruits.

Experts, police unions and lawmakers agree on the value of identifying whether those who aspire to become officers carry considerable degrees of biases, yet it is the lack of clarity on what tools and measures will be used to look for implicit biases that is raising concerns and prompting questions.

“If police departments start to reject applicants because they have implicit biases there will be no one left to hire,” said Lorie Fridell, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and founder of the Fair and Impartial Policing program, one of the most popular implicit-bias awareness trainings in the country.

That’s one problem with the implicit bias test: it shows that nearly everyone has implicit bias (the article mentions that 88% of whites and 48% of blacks have an implicit bias for white people (when I took the test, it showed I was “race neutral”: the optimal outcome). Not only that, but the IAT (Implicit Association Test) has been widely criticized on many grounds, not the least that it doesn’t seem to translate into measurable behavior, which is the reason you measure it. You can see The Replicability Index‘s useful summary of all the analyses by clicking on the screenshot below:

From the article’s conclusions:

An unbiased assessment of the evidence shows no compelling evidence that the race IAT is a valid measure of implicit racial bias; and without a valid measure of implicit racial bias it is impossible to make scientific statements about implicit racial bias. I think the general public deserves to know this. Unfortunately, there is no need for scientific evidence that prejudice and discrimination still exists. Ideally, psychologists will spend more effort in developing valid measures of racism that can provide trustworthy information about variation across individuals, geographic regions, groups, and time. Many people believe that psychologists are already doing it, but this review of the literature shows that this is not the case. It is high time to actually do what the general public expects from us.

(See also this article from the British Psychological Society’s “Research Digest.”) Based on the widespread criticism of these tests, it’s simply not valid to claim that everyone has implicit bias.

Now onto the writing quality of the article. It’s long, tedious, and the prose is convoluted and abysmal. There are also some errors. I’ll give a few examples:

The law comes amid a moment of social upheaval where police departments across the country are facing scrutiny. . . .

WRONG. A moment is a period of time, and so it should be “when police departments” rather than “where police departments”. This is a common mistake, but an editor should have caught it.

None of the experts interviewed by The Washington Post claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases — those that people are unwilling or unable to identify — as a hiring standard.

This is awkward. Although the antecedent to “those that people are unwilling or unable to identify” should be “unconscious biases”, it could also be “law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases.” The awkward sentence could easily be fixed to “None of the experts interviewed claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that hire using screenings for unconscious biases—those biases that people are unwilling or unable to identify.”

. . . . he is skeptical of taking implicit bias evaluations like IATs, as benchmarks of deep-seeded beliefs that would lead to discrimination.

IT IS NOT “DEEP-SEEDED” but “DEEP-SEATED”. Everybody should know this, but the mistake is common. But that doesn’t excuse it from appearing in a major newspaper.

These screenings vary agency to agency and often include review of social media postings for sexist or racist comments, interviews with acquaintances, past employers, family members and thorough mental evaluations.

That’s another awkward sentence implying that the review of social media posts includes “thorough mental evaluations”. This could have been solved by putting “thorough mental evaluations” before “review of social media postings.”
A shared concern among scholars is on the use of tools such as implicit association tests (IATs) — sometimes used in bias training — as a hiring tool or screening device due to the unreliability of its findings.
The bit after the second hyphen is confusing and hard to read. It would be easy to fix: “Because implicit association tests (IATs) have been found to be unreliable, scholars are concerned about their use to screen or hire applicants, or in bias training.” Further, the construction “a shared concern . . .on” is awkward and should be “Many scholars are concerned about. . . ” or some other construction.

Yes, these errors may seem minor, but don’t newspapers like the Washington Post employ line editors any more? What’s just as bad, or worse, is the painfully awkward prose, with long sentences, that pervades the entire article. Like this:

Kang said implicit bias tests provide useful, yet inexact information, which he compared to weather forecasts, about a person’s beliefs and stereotypes at a certain moment, but they ought to be used as road maps to help law enforcement agencies develop better methods and procedures, rather than as individual hiring tools.

UG-LEE! But examples are easy to find. One more and I’ll leave you:

Catafi said POST will be working with psychologists and law enforcement experts to incorporate these new required items to the current psychological screening manual, and they have until January 2022 to complete the process.

That one has a bad error as well: it’s incorporate INTO, not “incorporate to”.

But where are the editors? There ought to be editors. Well, maybe next year.

h/t: Luana

23 thoughts on “California passes law to test prospective cops for both explicit and implicit bias: a poorly written article in The Washington Post

    1. I know what you mean, but anyway… There are no subs (or very few) working for newspapers these days, which is a lot of the problem. “Deep seeded” is a new one on me (maybe an easier mistake to make for some US English speakers), but an error that a spell checker won’t pick up. I recently caught my daughter using the phrase “as a pose to” in a college essay, when what she meant was “as opposed to”, based on how she had misheard the phrase. (The joys of having a proofreading dad peering over your shoulder are probably rather limited!)

  1. This is why I often fail to read these articles from beginning to end – too long and poor writing. I see a new career option here – adjunct Washington Post line editor.

  2. But I thought Robin D’Angelo, Ibram Kendi and others have already proven that every single white person has implicit bias. So by the wokes’ own definition, this bans all white people from becoming cops. (Or, worse yet, it only leaves the most vicious racists — those who don’t openly confess their racist bias — in the candidate pool.)

  3. The likely outcome of such policies will be a lot less policing in black areas. Police officers have almost no positive incentives to respond to calls coming from there while knowing full well that any controversial shooting will ruin their lives and tarnish everyone in their department. I find it hard to believe that the next generation of police officers will be better. Who wants to sign up for such a thankless job?

    In the George Floyd era, it is increasingly thought just to burn down one or more cities every time an evil black thug (excuse me, aspiring rapper) gets killed. If service sector workers should find safer pastures to commute to, e.g. by working from home, the future of places like San Francisco, Seattle and even New York looks dire.

    1. George Floyd era, it is increasingly thought just to burn down one or more cities every time an evil black thug (excuse me, aspiring rapper) gets killed.

      George Floyd supposedly tried to pass a fake $20. It’s unclear if he actually did or whether the shopowner was mistaken. For that, a policeman kneeled on his neck for over 8 minutes until he died.

      Anyone who brushes off this injustice as merely “an evil black thug gets killed” would, I suspect, not pass the even the superficial, explicit part of Ca PD’s new racial bias test.

      1. If I recall the shopkeeper’s testimony correctly, they did not call the police because he tried to pass a fake bill.

        First, they tried to pass the fake bill. (The shopkeeper said they had a bunch of them.) When the shopkeeper refused to accept it, Floyd and his friends robbed the store. When the shopkeeper went outside to try to recover the merchandise, they verbally abused him. At that point, they called the police.

      2. > George Floyd supposedly tried to pass a fake $20

        I think that is a very selective report of what happened. I do not blame you for it, since it is hard to find reliable information.

        A short search reveals that George Floyd
        * held a gun to a pregnant woman’s belly during a home invasion
        * served 8 prison terms
        * was arrested 19 times, and resisted arrest in some number of instances
        * fathered 5 children who he never supported
        * swallowed his drugs and play-acted during a 2019 arrest by crying and the like (this even seems to have involved the famous BLM line “I can’t breathe”)
        * did the same thing in 2020, but died.
        So far, an autopsy has shown that he likely died of a drug overdose, exacerbated by his heart disease. There is no evidence that racism was involved.

        Is it really implausible that someone with this biography would give you a bad feeling when trying to pay with fake money? (Criminals are not nice people. Perhaps you have been more fortunate than me and never encountered them.) I suspect the store clerk had good reasons to fear for his safety.

      3. “George Floyd supposedly tried to pass a fake $20. It’s unclear if he actually did or whether the shopowner was mistaken. For that, a policeman kneeled on his neck for over 8 minutes until he died.”

        OK, but to add some facts. (1) The shopowner’s concern was equally that Floyd appeared drugged/intoxicated and about to drive a car.

        (2) The policeman didn’t kneel on him “because of that [the $20 bill]”, but because he didn’t cooperate with the police, resisted arrest, and wrestled with them.

        (3) He had a fatal dose of several drugs in him (sufficient to cause the heart attack from which died).

        (4) *Before* he was on the ground, and was being knelt on, he *six* times said “I can’t breath” (helping to explain why the police ignored his later pleas).

        The defence will argue that he was in the process of dying from a drug overdose, and that the knee did not exert major force.

        The prosecution will have to refute that possibility “beyond reasonable doubt”. So long as the toxicology report stands up, that is going to be hard.

        The policemen could well be acquitted.

    2. The steady escalation of the riots after George Floyd is more worrying and goes more towards Savage’s point.

      Consider the riots in Pennsylvania now, after Walter Wallace chased two officers with a knife. They tried retreating and told him to drop the knife but he kept running after them. Then they shot him. There was a similar case a month or few prior, when a black man with a knife was charging an officer and got shot. People still rioted, despite it being on video.

      It really raises the question of what police can do in situations like that. It seems the only thing that will appease BLM is to surrender and get stabbed. Or, just not police black areas.

  4. Evidently fewer and fewer reporters and sub-editors at WaPo have a deep-seeded knowledge of English, let alone of its grammar, clause structure, and other elements of good usage.
    On the other hand, I’ll bet they all did
    brilliantly on Diversity Statements.

    As to the problem of implicit bias, here the logic of wokery is impeccable. Since, as Robin DiAngelo teaches us, everyone has it, nobody will pass the police application test, and so the police will just have to be abolished. QED

  5. I know almost nothing about psychological testing or how accurate it might be. So without going into the poor writing I would be more interested in the specific training or retraining the police department is doing. That is where the worst of our problems seem to be and where we can improve the most. The killing just the other day of a person by at least two officers in daylight, in the middle of the street. This one caused all the rioting and damage in Philly I believe. The person killed had a knife. He simply walked out toward the officers and they opened up, both officers shooting multiple times and very fast. I would not be surprise if they emptied their weapons. Just from observation this seemed like extreme overkill. I understand why they may have needed to shoot but to shoot, bang, bang, bang, bang, as fast as you can pull a trigger, maybe twenty shots were fired. They likely emptied their guns before the guy hit the ground. What kind of training causes this reaction from one guy with a knife standing pretty close by in broad daylight. I do not get it? Someone explain that kind of action by trained police?

    1. I agree that police shouldn’t fire so many shots once they decide to shoot. You’d think they could fire one or two shots and see if that’s enough.

      1. Yes, the performance of these officers seemed to indicate they were way too scared of the situation they were in or something else was very wrong with them. Either way, they should not be police officers as far as I can judge. If this performance was how they were trained then there is something seriously wrong with the training.

    2. The dead thug had a history of assault, not excluding punching a police officer. He had also rapped about killing police officers and had threatened to kill the mother of one of his many children (he obviously never provided for them). The police had been called dozens of times to his address. Apparently, the instinctive reaction of the police was basically correct. The man was very dangerous.

      A gun is no kryptonite against a knife wielder. Apparently there is a guideline that not firing before 21 feet distance is not safe enough. All the attacker needs to do is hit one important blood vessel. You can argue for smart gun use, but what’s wrong with putting safety first? An ordinary policeman will not be exceptionally good at shooting, because marksmanship is only a small part of his job.

    3. > maybe twenty shots were fired. They likely emptied their guns before the guy hit the ground. What kind of training causes this reaction from one guy with a knife standing pretty close by

      It’s pretty easy to find “police twitter” which will reliably have videos of other incidents that went badly for the cops. They are pretty terrifying. Turns out that big guys with enough adrenaline in their veins (and sometimes harder things too) can still be dangerous with 5 bullets in them, sometimes. Like getting up off the ground & taking the gun away from the other cop kind of dangerous, even if he may later die of his wounds.

      The training cops get in how to shoot people is derived from hard-won evidence about such things.

      1. I would say nonsense to both of your replies. When two police officers need to empty their guns on one guy with a knife standing in the street 20 feet away – that is dangerous. Where do you think all those bullets go. Throughout the neighborhood and into other houses. I would like to see a report, if they even do one, that shows where all the bullets went. How many even hit the guy? Just give me the evidence. What these guys did was not professional.

  6. I’m all for screening to look for participation in neo-nazi groups and the like, but I’m otherwise pretty skeptical. In part because I think a lot of the callous behavior is learned on/due to the job, not before it.

    A much faster and more effective solution, IMO, is for prosecutors to crack down hard on police misconduct, and for the courts to treat their testimony as more comparable to a civilian witnesses’ rather than giving it more weight/credibility. You want to change police behavior, show them that the consequences for an officer shooting an unarmed person in the back or suffocating a prone person will be exactly the same as if I shot someone in the back or I suffocated a prone person.

    1. ” the consequences for an officer shooting an unarmed person in the back or suffocating a prone person will be exactly the same as if I shot someone in the back or I suffocated a prone person.”

      Except that there’s a big difference. The police are obligated to arrest suspects. You are not. If the suspect then resists arrest, that itself is a criminal act. If they do that, it is reasonable for the police to be concerned that the suspect might be armed.

      1. They are not obligated to kill them. What is so troublesome to me is that peoples so blithely jump from “he did something wrong” to “it was his fault that he was killed”.

        1. Agreed, absolutely. I thought the meme of ‘wanted dead or alive’ was supposed to be a myth from the Wild West.


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