Bias and Prejudice in Police: Lessons from the US

By: Anjanay Pandey

Ques custodiet ipsos custodet – Who will watch the watchman?”

In a world that is becoming increasingly diverse and enabling, stereotypes and biases are often the cause of pain and misunderstanding. What to do when these biases inhabit and affect the police personnel? Biases in law-enforcement agencies usually point to the existence of regressive and conservative outlooks which can be either inherent or institutional. As Professor Jeffrey W. Lucas of the Department of Sociology, University of Maryland defines it, “Institutionalized or systemic bias occurs when institutional practices, scripts or procedures work to systematically advantage certain groups or agendas over others.”[1] The most marked case of institutional bias is the general treatment of certain groups of people at the hands of the police. These groups can represent any demographic and can be subject to any type of hostile attitude, be it refusal to file the First Information Report or even extra-judicial killings and encounters by the police.

The groups that are most afflicted by these biases include women, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, Muslims and other minorities. The experiences that these groups have with the police have a common feature – the police have a negative outlook towards them which is amply exhibited by their conduct and which in many cases extend to downright indulgence in racial and ethnic profiling. This practice is obviously detrimental to the neutrality of the law enforcement system, which must abstain from perpetuating stereotypes and causing the alienation and deprivation of certain groups from the justice dispensation process.

The solutions could include the staple suggestion of incorporating more people from the minority community. A simple correlational study of the representation of the community in the police force and the number of communal riots that the state experiences will negate the belief. A common example is that of the state of Tamil Nadu which has a significantly low representation of Muslims but a good record on communal violence. In stark contrast is the situation in Andhra Pradesh, a state in which the representation of Muslims in the police force is higher than that of the population and yet they face some of the worst instances of communal violence.[2] Clearly, increasing representation is not the panacea it is made out to be. Diversity in the police force is important, but it doesn’t guarantee in and of itself that police officers can and will relate to diverse members of their community in a sensitive manner.[3]

Other measures to counter this challenge include community policing and diversity sensitivity training for the police personnel. In this respect, it would be better to look at the state of affairs in the US, a heterogeneous community with similar challenges of racial and ethnic profiling, amply exhibited by the shootings. Over the years, various police departments and other law-enforcement agencies have evolved ways to increase diversity sensitivity and reduce race bias amongst the policemen. Strategies there have focused first on raising awareness about the implicit race bias, and second on the specific measures that different organizational levels of policing might need to combat implicit bias.[4] One common way to do that is by communication and collaboration.

Often police departments attempt to inculcate these practices early on by requiring recruits to meet the diverse communities which they will interact with while on duty later. They are encouraged to seek the assistance of these communities while enforcing law and order. One such example is the Police Training Program of St. Louis Police Department in Missouri, USA.[5] Some groups like the Anti-Defamation League are even carving out the form of anti-bias training for the benefit of law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other police departments.[6] They focus primarily on cultural differences and bridging the gap created by biases and stereotypes through effective communication.

The changing demographics of any place also call out for a need to change the policing practices. The better police adapt to the needs and structures of a community, the better policing it can do. A case on point is that of Storm Lake City of Iowa, USA. The city experienced a major spurt in population and diversity due to refugee relocation and industrialization. The police in response adapted itself for the many challenges that diversity brought with itself such as linguistic barriers, mistrust of the police and gang violence to name a few. They incorporated multilingual employees and materials to increase accessibility. In addition, each police officer made a contact in the community unrelated to his duties so as to increase the confidence with which the members could approach the police. They even had volunteer programs in collaborattion with the local university to better inform the citizens of their rights and even had some of the police officers visit the countries of origin of some of the immigrants.[7] Quite similar is the case of Bakersfield Police Department which has included discussions between former Neo-Nazis and Holocaust survivors as part of their diversity training for the police officers and citizens alike.[8]

While all of the aforementioned steps taken in the US cannot be replicated in India, their central ethos can be. The law enforcement agencies need to develop a sustaining relationship with the community which is not cold, robotic and limited to the fulfilment of the singular objective of maintaining law and order. As in all good relationships, communication is the key.

[1] Jeffrey W Lucas, ‘Institutionalized Bias’ (Sage Knowledge)

[2] Praveen Swamy, ‘Bias and the Police’ (The Frontline) .

[3] Ella Powers, ‘Police departments strive for cultural diversity inside and out’ (STL Beacon)!/content/18920/police_departments_strive_for_cultural_sensitivity_inside_and_outside

[4] Jules Holroyd, ‘Implicit Racial Bias and the Anatomy of Institutional Racism’ (Centre for Crime and Justice Studies)

[5] Ella Powers (n 3).

[6] ‘Anti-Bias Training for Law Enforcement Professionals’ (Anti-Defemation League) law.html?referrer=

[7] Mark A Prosser, Policing a Diverse Community (The Police Chief Magazine)

[8] ‘Diversity Training at the Bakersfield Police Department’ (The United States Conference of Mayors)

(Anjanay is Editor at the RMLNLU Law Review Blog.)