Implicit bias is, according to dictionary.com, a predisposition that results from the tendency to process information based on unconscious associations and feelings, even when these are contrary to one’s conscious or declared beliefs.
That concept has been widely discussed and analyzed in recent weeks in the context of social justice and policing, and it came up tonight during a meeting of the Genesee County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative via Zoom videoconferencing.
Laura Williams, a Social Studies teacher at Elba Central School and committee member, asked Sheriff William Sheron if his department is doing anything to address implicit bias.
“As part of being a teacher, I feel like I have very open blinders and I have for many years, and since March, I have been doing a lot of reading about this movement of Black Lives Matter and police force … (and) one thing that I dove very deep into is this notion of implicit bias and it really opened my eyes, even though I thought my eyes were very open about this notion of implicit bias,” Williams said.
“Is there any more training that you’re doing with your staff and everybody in your department to revisit again this idea that we all have this bias and we all need to reimagine everything the way that we address every single issue that we’re handling?”
Sheron, after noting that Julie Carasone, another committee member, did a presentation for county management people on bias, said that “is an area where we could definitely use more training.”
Mandatory Training in the Works
“The officers do receive training in the basic academy … and there’s really not much follow-up to it. So, we have mentioned that as one of the things – and I am sure the Division of Criminal Justice Services, through the Municipal Police Training Council, is going to make that a mandatory in-service training, probably on an annual basis,” he said. “It’s absolutely an area we need to focus on as we move forward.”
He then mentioned systematic racial bias, stating that although he had no studies specific to Genesee County to report, he didn’t think his agency has the “degree of issues that maybe your inner city or your larger city departments have.”
“I think that not only the Sheriff’s Office but the Batavia PD, Le Roy PD – we’re very well supervised and scrutinized, and quite frankly, officers don’t put up with that.”
Still, he said he believes that increased awareness and education regarding implicit and racial bias should be part of ongoing in-service training.
Williams commended Sheron on running a department that has taken steps to foster community relationships.
“I have been having those conversations with friends of mine in Le Roy and in Elba, where I work, that the reason that it is so difficult for many of us in Genesee County to grasp the conflicts going on across the country is because, I think, we really don’t have this enormous issue with our police force and our Sheriff’s department,” she offered.
Very Few Complaints Against Officers
Sheron said he has received very few – “seven or eight this year,” he said – complaints about officer behavior and very few, if any, about excessive force.
On interaction with the public, he acknowledged that there is always room for improvement.
“Some officers have a very good demeanor with the public; some officers can use improvement,” he said. “Again, it’s give-and-take. You give respect; you get respect. But even if you don’t get that respect, you (police officer) still have to be professional and just do your job.”
He said complaints are dealt with immediately.
“We have a complaint form that is given to the individual to file a complaint and we start looking at the body cam video right away. We do not accept performance by an officer that is less than par,” he said.
Rachel Gelabale, international student at GCC and committee member, asked about the Sheriff’s Office’s interaction with the community through activities and events, particularly a shopping day with kids around the Christmas season.
“Yes, we do. That’s called Shop with the Cop,” Sheron said. “We’ve always hooked up with Walmart to do that for the kids. Unfortunately, from what I’m being told, this year Walmart will not be taking part in that.
Program for Needy Kids is on 'Target'
“However, Target has a program that they have started, called Stuff the Cruiser, and each of the police agencies here in Genesee County will have a patrol vehicle out in front of Target and individuals can buy toys and so forth for the needy here in the county and we will distribute them.”
Tonight’s meeting also touched upon de-escalation training and practices, and law enforcement assisted diversion programs.
Sheron said his department doesn’t have a de-escalation policy, but refers to guidelines in the use of force policy.
“I believe the DCJS and MPTC is going to come out with a mandatory in-service training for a year,” he said. “We do go through a use of force training every year in conjunction with our firearms training.”
The ability of deputies on road patrol to bring a situation under control is vital to successful police work, Sheron said.
“Genesee County is very rural and our patrols are spread thin. It’s well known and accepted by our officers out there on the street that they better be able to de-escalate because their backup may be 15 to 20 minutes away. And they’re very good at it,” he said. “I always say you’re going to do more with your mouth than you’ll do with your fist. They need to talk. They need to communicate with people.”
He said his agency will be forming a de-escalation policy after receiving a model policy from New York State.
“As an accredited agency, it’s much easier to follow exactly what they want us to do and the boilerplate they give us to work with than to try and reinvent the wheel,” he said.
A Model for Restorative Justice
Genesee Justice has been a model for restorative justice and diversion for many years, and continues to play a huge role in the community, said Catherine Uhly, the agency’s director.
Uhly outlined through PowerPoint slides the various components of the program that utilizes community sectors to ensure that the victim is heard and the offender has a chance to make amends, in most cases, without being incarcerated.
“You’re giving the voice to the victim, you’re giving the offender some accountability for what they have done, but you’re also giving them some competency development,” she said. “Our program is not just punishment … go to jail and you get out. Our programs try to develop some competency in the offender so they go on in their lives and do not recommit crimes. And encompassing it all is community safety.”
Uhly said Genesee Justice currently is working with 439 victims, including a large group affected by a breach-of-services case of a local funeral home director.
Genesee Justice also is working with 127 people in the DWI Conditional Discharge program for first-time offenders, 60 people in the Released Under Supervision and another 25 in the Pre-Trial Release programs (both alternatives to jail time) and 49 people in Ignition Interlock Supervision that aren’t part of DWI Conditional Discharge.
Community service is a longstanding part of Genesee Justice, with 165 offenders -- including those in the DWI Conditional Discharge track -- currently performing volunteer hours at nonprofit organizations throughout the county.
Uhly said GJ has a “high success rate” when it comes to those not violating while under supervision, but she did not have statistics on the rate of re-offending after completing the program.
When moderator Robert Bausch asked for some suggestions about how police officers can improve community relations, the subject of school resource officers came up.
SROs Forging Positive Relationships
“I think that is one of the big things with the SRO program,” Sheron said. “The relationships that we have made in the schools … sometimes you have to lay the law down, but more often than not, the relationships that we have made with the children are just phenomenal.
“They look up to the police officers again and they recognize that we are human beings and that we have families, too, and that we have made mistakes in our lives – and there’s really nothing we can’t get through if we all work together.”
He said all schools except Elba have SROs, and he speculated that cost could be a contributing factor in that district’s decision to not have one.
That prompted Williams to express her opinion on the matter.
“I work at that school and I think that that is part of it, but I also think that there’s a whole other aspect that’s sort of along the lines of what we are talking about here,” she said. “I think there are two methods of approaching this and bridging the gap between officers and, in this case, kids.
“… I think there’s a whole other audience we need to tap into as well. I think that there are some people who are hesitant to bring officers into a building for fear of scaring kids rather than acclimating kids to the positives that can come out of having an officer more directly in their lives. I’d be willing to help you with that.”
Sheron said he would appreciate any help.
“What you said, yes, I have heard that,” he said. “I was hoping that the SRO pretty much sells itself -- once you get the officer in there and they see what a good service it is, and how much the kids really enjoy it. And there’s the safety factor also.”
The group’s next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 7, with discussion expected to revolve around restorative justice practices, community-based outreach and conflict resolution, and problem-oriented policing.