Fair and Impartial?

Lehigh faculty explore public views about law enforcement and reducing biases
“I am not naïve enough to think we will eliminate prejudice. People have complex motives that give rise to bias. I want to help inform people about the nature of these biases, and its control, to make them better prepared to deal with it,” says psychology professor Gordon B. Moskowitz.
Moskowitz, who is also chair of the psychology department, isa social psychologistwho has spent the better part of the last two decades “studying things people do of which they are unaware.” He is part of a team of Lehigh professors delving into the way in which people’s unconscious views about police officers and the role of the police shape their reactions to situations involving the police.
The team includes Holona LeAnne Ochs, associate professor and graduate director of political science and interim associate dean of interdisciplinary studies, and Dominic Packer, associate professor of psychology and associate dean for research and graduate programs.Other members of the team include Anthony DiMaggio, assistant professor of political science; Joe Vitriol, postdoctoral researcher; and Scott Hoke, a faculty member at Cedar Crest College.
According to Packer, the group’s collaboration started out as generalconversations among people interested in bias and grew from there. Those initial conversations ultimately became an official jointresearch project titled “Democratic Policing: Bias Reduction and Police-Public Interactions,” supported by a Collaborative Opportunity Research Grant on which Ochs is the principal investigator.
“I read Gordon and Dominic’s work before coming to Lehigh,” Ochs says. “I have used their research in my courses to better understand the cognitive and social processes that undermine what might be better policy design. We’ve always had conversations about our various perspectives on bias reduction and began meeting regularly to think about how we could work together on an interdisciplinary project. This helped us determine the intersections of our perspectives that might be an opportunity to address questions relevant in our different disciplines as well as do something that might benefit the broader community.”
“It started as a set of people interested in bias, fairly generally, and in particular as it might relate to policing. That was one of the things we quickly settled on as an interesting topic,” recalls Packer.
Recently, the team began conducting focus groups with different collections of people around the Lehigh Valley, asking a series of questions centered on how theyview the job of the police in their community.
“Our goal is to get a broad array of perspectives,” Packer adds. “We will talk to anyone who is willing to sit down with us for half an hour, whether they are people who work in a food bank, are part of a neighborhood watch or members of a church.”
The team is also conducting focus groups with police officers, asking them to describe how they see their job.
“As an issue, it is not well understood,” Packer explains. “The potential disjunction between how police understand their jobs and what they are doing and how different communities understand the job of the police—it can be very problematic. It can make the job harder and a lot less safe if there is a disconnect between what the officer thinks and the community thinks.
“We are hoping to determine where there are clear alliances and places where things are not as clearly aligned, where they are not on the same page,” he adds.
A matter of time
For Moskowitz, research stems from the fact that such judgments do not always stem from hate or a desire to dominate others or maintain inequities between groups. He studies a variety of issues relating to how people make judgments about other people “outside of consciousness.”
“These types of judgments,” he explains, “that occur without one intending to judge others, or awareness of having done so, are called automatic or implicit inferences and judgments. The term ‘implicit bias’ refers to when we make judgments about others based on the groups to which they belong—stereotypes and prejudices that get triggered unconsciously.
“Sometimes, even without those motives,” he explains, “and even among people with the opposite motives—to be fair and egalitarian—the simple need to understand what other people are like and to predict what they are likely to say and do so you can prepare your own appropriate behavior gives rise to a reliance on categories and stereotypes, even without one realizing it.”
Moskowitz also studies how people can control these automatic responses.
“Since they occur without consciousness, it is tempting to conclude there is nothing that can be done about these types of biases,” he says.
Most recently, Moskowitz has explored the stresses of cross-race relations.
“For each party, there are concerns that don’t arise in same-race interactions that make people nervous and awkward,” he explains. “These include thoughts such as ‘Will I say something inappropriate?,’ ‘Am I being judged?’ and ‘Will others think I am prejudiced?’”
Neuroscientists have demonstrated that these concerns cause a person to experience a given period of time as longer than it actually is. For example, the stress felt by a white person when interacting with a black person will slow their perception of time so that they overestimate the length of the encounter.
This idea may help to explain research findings in the medical field that report white doctors spending less time with black patients, according to Moskowitz.
“While it seemed possible such doctors might dislike the patients,” he says, “there also seemed to be the possibility something else was at work, something less consciously intended. Perhaps they spend less time because a five-minute intake interview feels like 10 minutes. Perhaps it is not avoidance and dislike at the heart of the disparity in treatment; perhaps it is an honest perceptual error arising from arousal of not wanting to appear biased.
“This is a great irony—it suggests that among people very concerned with not appearing biased, there is an arousal that might introduce a subtle bias in how they treat people,” he adds.
Tying things back to community policing, Moskowitz says that a police officer who has the goal of not appearing biased or being seen by others as racist will become anxious when entering a racially charged situation.
“If that arousal slows time, then one second may seem like several seconds. Given that decisions to use deadly force get made in these short intervals, it would suggest that the goal of not wanting to be biased might make one shoot sooner. The added anxiety would slow time and make it feel as if it is now time to use force,” Moskowitz says.
My goal is to see the scientists who actually have the expertise being more involved in policy issues and in corporate attempts to meet the challenge.
Challenging dynamics
Broadly speaking, Packer’s research has two branches to it—internal group dynamics and dynamics between groups.
In terms of the behaviors within a group, Packer says his is especially interested in what happens when there are dissenting opinions within a group and the point at which people will challenge a group they are part of and say, “You are wrong.”
When it comes to the interactions between groups, he adds, he looks at the times when people in one group choose to cooperate with the members of other groups and when they are more insular.
Packer points to a couple of specific projects he is undertaking with Lehigh Ph.D. students to further illustrate his work.
“In one project,” he explains, “I am working with LehighPh.D. student Natasha Thalla on a dissertation, and we are looking at how social institutions, things like the rule of law, police officers, the judicial system and the government more broadly, influence people’s decisions about who they feel comfortable interacting with.
“It’s really about how does institutional bias impact minority groups? This institutional bias makes minority groups feel not safe or that it is unwise to operate outside of their own group boundaries. We see members of groups not extend beyond their own group boundaries because these institutions are biased against them in many cases,” he says.
In another project, in which Packer worked with recent Lehigh Ph.D. graduate Shiang-Yi Lin, the focus was on responses to police shootings of civilians.
“She was interested in how people react when they read a news story about someone being shot by a police officer and what explains different people reacting differently,” Packer says.
“Despite there being a clear racial bias component, people who want people to be treated fairly are very bothered by these shootings.Especially if the person was compliant with an officer and still gets shot, it creates a public perception that something went very wrong,” he says.
Policy matters
For Ochs, the work has public policy implications. Shesays her interest in bias reduction has been a part of who she is for as long as she can remember. Ochs’ first master’s degree is in clinical marriage and family therapy, and she worked for several years as a therapist specializing in trauma-related disorders in a halfway house and in a domestic violence shelter.
“My perspective and understanding of patterns of bias certainly sharpened by listening carefully to people living in poverty and people who have been incarcerated,” she explains. “I noticed that people could gain insights, perspective, and make important behavioral changes that improved their functioning but were very often put in lose-lose situations precipitated by policy as much as by their choice or the lack of agency in what was most often disadvantaged circumstances. I started to get interested in how we might design policies with more regard for the people impacted by those policies.” 
Much of Ochs’ research focuses on people living in poverty in the hopes of making things better for them. In particular, she often looks at the government policies and procedures surrounding the welfare system to try to find opportunities for improvement.
“There are numerous stories of the successes and failures of welfare reform at achieving the statutory objectives,” she says. “My research is not concerned with engaging in technical evaluation or partisan debates regarding policy preferences.
“Political science often ignores the people who are subject to policies, while basing policy design largely on assumptions about rational individuals without regard for the circumstances of poverty,” she adds. “In the broadest sense, my research seeks to understand the tools of social control, which include the ‘welfarist left hand’ and the ‘carceral right hand’ of governance.”
In addition, Ochs is currently conducting a historical analysis of welfare rituals, highlighting possibilities for Universal Basic Income (UBI). In particular, she says, she is hoping to demonstrate that many of the structures and practices already in place could support UBI and communicate an approach agreeable to American perceptions, which are constrained by a long history of privatizing the situation.
When it comes to the criminal justice system, Ochs is analyzing the role of untreated mental illness in deadly encounters with the police. 
“I demonstrate that jurisdictions with more restrictive access to mental health treatment have higher rates of police use of lethal force, and those jurisdictions that provide Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) lower the relative risk of lethal force over time, “she says.
In the end, her work points to opportunities to create policies that improve health and safety for the police and the public. Ultimately, she sees some concrete next steps for the work being done by this team.
“We hope to build on our research on perspectives on policing in the Lehigh Valley to establish a Center for the Study of Democratic Policing that would serve as a research center, a community forum and online platform for enhancing police public relations,” she says.
Moskowitz, too, has a very clear vision about where he would like to see things go from here.
“Becoming more applied. Trying to take what we know from our research and creating our own workshops, training on bias reduction that is based on research and expertise. Too often, it seems that industry is called on to take action as it relates to diversity, and they turn to organizations that claim to fir  this need, but based on what? My goal is to see the scientists who actually have the expertise being more involved in policy issues and in corporate attempts to meet the challenge,” he says.
by Jennifer Marangos