Racial Bias Exists. Can We Train Cops to Deal With It? 

The Oscar Grant shooting calls into question police training for critical incidents.

There have been well more than one million Internet viewings of the videos showing the killing of Oscar Grant. The grainy and often chaotic videos show Grant sitting on the BART platform with his arms above his head. Then he is on his knees with his arms outstretched, looking as though he is trying to protect himself. Several officers pull him face down on the platform, and after what appears to be a struggle, Officer Johannes Mehserle steps back, pulls a gun, and shoots Grant in the back.

President Obama has described the incident between Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge police as a "teachable moment." Across both the country and the political spectrum, the role that racism, rage, and racial bias might have played in that incident has been dissected and analyzed. In the Bay Area, we have a "teachable hour" when it comes to the New Year's Day killing of Grant. That hour could be used to look at whether police training adequately addresses the possibility that police officers' perception of danger can be influenced by racial bias.

The Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training is mandated to train for critical incidents and the use of lethal force. The commission was established by the California Legislature in 1959 to set minimum selection and training standards for state law enforcement. Every police officer in California, including BART police, receives his or her training from a curriculum developed by the commission.

"All BART officers are trained for critical incidents and the situation with Oscar Grant was one of those," said Sergeant John M. Sandoval, a spokesperson for the BART Police Department's Personnel and Training Section. "But each incident is unique. The officer's reactions will be different when the adrenaline is going and whether he is a new or seasoned officer. You don't know how you are going to react, and we cannot train for every possible incident. ... Each critical incident that an officer has helps him deal better with the next one." And yet the cumulative effects of Mehserle learning from other critical incidents obviously did not save Oscar Grant.

When asked if Mehserle's training addressed how racial bias might influence the way that officers react in crisis situations, Sandoval said that the training does not get into that degree of specificity. All BART officers do evidently view a video on racial profiling, said Sandoval, who offered to arrange a viewing of the video. But that opportunity was rescinded after BART spokesperson Linton Johnson wrote via e-mail that "the opportunity to review training videos is no longer available." Johnson then referred all inquiries to BART's outside legal counsel, attorney Dale Allen.

Allen was asked if BART's police training addressed the possibility that responses to critical incidents might be influenced by racial bias. After conferring with the BART board, Allen returned with a polite "no comment."

Training in when to use lethal force didn't seem to make Officer Mehserle pause before firing that fatal shot. Would a different kind of training have made make it less likely that an unarmed man lying face down would be shot in the back?

Officer Mehserle is said to have received much of his basic police training at the Napa Police Academy. Although director Damien Sandoval would not confirm or deny that Mehserle attended the academy, he said he is not sure that any curriculum could get at the extent to which attitudes about race might play a role in incidents involving lethal force. "Our training covers the use of lethal force and racial profiling, but do we try to assess what is going on in the mind of an individual officer?" Sandoval said. "All people receive lessons about race; bias cuts across racial lines. How do you get underneath one person's life's experiences to look at their possible behavior under stress?"

If police academy curricula don't address that issue, who does?. Sandoval said that many BART police officers attend the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where training seeks to strengthen ethical decision making. Training program director Sunny Lee-Goodman said the problem with racial bias is getting people to acknowledge it. "It comes down to providing a safe enough environment to have a nondefensive discussion without fear of repercussions or litigation," Lee-Goodman said. "No one wants to be accused of being a racist, so we find ways to get officers to look at their bias without the fear of being labeled. By the time you get to a critical incident, if you have not thought this through, it might be too late."

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