COLUMBIA — Laughter erupted late Saturday morning in the City Council chambers.
About 40 people had gathered for a public session of the Columbia Police Department's fair and impartial police training, a program the department administers to every sworn officer. Columbia Police Sgt. Mike Hestir showed the group a photo of a woman striking a risqué pose on a motorcycle.
"She's getting paid for that shot," Rachel Brekhus said, drawing the laughter.
Hestir showed the photograph about halfway through the training session to demonstrate how people make assumptions when they have limited information. The training, developed by Lorie Fridell, an associate criminology professor at the University of South Florida, aims to combat bias in officers and help them work more effectively.
"Biased policing is unsafe," Hestir said. Implicit, or unintentional, bias is unavoidable, he said. If left unchecked, those biases erode trust in police officers and interfere with their ability to do their jobs, he said. By becoming aware of their biases, officers can check their decision-making and ensure they are policing effectively.
For years, Columbia police have pulled over black drivers at a much higher rate than white drivers, and this summer, the department came under increased public pressure to address that disparity. The department changed its policy to ask for written — rather than just verbal — consent in searches where officers do not have probable cause or a warrant. Police command staff have met with community activists since July. The department has also joined a White House initiative to begin releasing raw policing data in an effort to increase transparency.
After demonstrating the dangers of bias, Hestir pointed out common forms of biases, such as racial associations with crime or gender associations with violence. After an hourlong lunch break, Hestir led a role-playing exercise and then dove into psychology.
“I’m not a brain-ologist, so walk with me on this,” he said, presenting studies that demonstrate people subconsciously associate black men with crime. Hestir said that the bias is neither reflective of criminal behavior nor helpful to police work.
The training was part of an attempt to "show my cards to the community" and build trust, Hestir said in an interview.
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, president of the community activist group Race Matters, Friends, said the training was a good step toward humanizing police officers. She added that the police department should have a philosophy of community-oriented policing, as well as the funding necessary to support it.
The department is planning a feedback session for 7 p.m. Wednesday. More information will be available via the department's social media channels.
Supervising editor is Adam Aton.