Marcos Bretón

'Implicit bias' replaces the 'R' word. This is how we explain cops killing black men.

"Implicit bias" is a nice way of saying someone is racist without calling them racist. You have heard it more often recently in association with the police shooting of Stephon Clark last month.

If implicit bias were a light beer, its sales slogan would be: "Less judgmental, feels nicer."

U.S Sen. Kamala Harris lapped up the phrase repeatedly in Sacramento last week while describing recent examples of police brutality. Presumably, this allowed Harris, as it has other politicians, to speak of social justice without alienating law enforcement too much or losing endorsements and financial contributions.

This is not a new phrase we're talking about. Social scientists have been citing implicit bias for years. It refers to the unconscious as opposed to conscious. It is about attitudes and biases we all harbor without really knowing or admitting we do.

Those biases can result in all-white workplaces, run by male CEOs who would never approve of a project that featured a diverse-cast movie not named "Black Panther." They are part of the social fabric that affect us in in many ways. With the police, implicit bias can kill.


Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg repeated his call for addressing implicit bias within police ranks, and the term arose again just last week related to the city's settlement with Nandi Cain Jr., a black man beaten by a Sacramento Police officer after a jaywalking stop. The mayor also invoked the term earlier talking about the March 18 shooting of Clark.

Implicit bias possibly is behind Clark getting shot repeatedly in the back because he may have been breaking windows. Implicit bias drives some sort of instant blanket judgment on black men. Maybe. Or is it just racist to assume that all black men you come upon in the dark are carrying guns and are inherently dangerous? Can we really solve the problems by being so nice about them, coming up with gentle social jargon to mask them?

The police officers who killed Clark didn't know his criminal record when they pulled the trigger and fired 20 shots between them. But they knew they were on a darkened street in a struggling neighborhood. They knew dogs were barking and growling at them. It seems fair to say they recognized an African-American man in their sights just before the tragic moment that turned Sacramento into a national symbol of police brutality.

It happened in a flash: The officers screamed, "Gun!" when, in fact, it was a cellphone. Implicit bias? Or racism? If it were the former, conventional wisdom suggests law enforcement officers can be trained to recognize and suppress their biases in stressful situations.

Law enforcement officers in California are being trained to recognize implicit bias through course work provided by the California Commission on Peace Officer Training and Standards. The training is in progress and not all officers are training yet, but is it even possible to teach cops not to kill young black men in stressful confrontations?

Maybe because we all must believe that it is possible, plenty of important people in Sacramento are done arguing the dreaded "R" word and have moved on to confronting the more acceptable implicit bias concept.

It's a start.

Steinberg has labored to maintain a relationship with the cops. Even though he was not endorsed by the local police officers union, Steinberg has made a point to attend police roll calls. He maintains, then, a connection with the cops on the street, and they feel less alienated from City Hall.

When cops feel alienated, they are more likely to behave that way in public. An alienated cop, a stressed and scared cop, can be a more dangerous cop.

Before the Clark shooting, Sacramento Police had been taking real steps to address the biases and alienation that front-line cops feel on the streets. In Police Chief Daniel Hahn, Sacramento has a law enforcement leader who is willing to have the hard conversations within his own ranks. Hahn understands the vast power that front-line cops wield every day and realizes that power can corrupt unless it's checked with training and professionalism.

Since Hahn took the reins of a troubled department in August, Sacramento PD has been looking inward in encouraging ways, said Basim Elkarra, a leader in Sacramento's Muslim community and a member of the Sacramento Police Community Police Review Committee.

When I suggested implicit bias was a slogan designed to avoid confronting racism, Elkarra disagreed.

"The training they are doing in Sacramento Police is real, man," he said. He described crisis intervention training where instructors show their pupils a series of police shootings followed by intense discussions on how they were handled.

"It was intense, people disagreed," he said.

The training will inform ordinances on police pursuits of suspects that Elkarra and others hope will decrease the likelihood of the next Stephon Clark.

It is a nice thought: that a paramilitary organization like Sacramento Police can truly embrace introspection without circling the wagons, as law enforcement agencies often do. If cops can admit they have biases – about skin color, appearances, modes of expression, poverty – maybe fewer people will die in Sacramento because of how they look or where they live. That would be nice, but training alone won't get it done.

​I get that it's more practical to reduce racism to an inefficiency rather than confront it as a moral failing. But cops have been talking about implicit bias for years, and Stephon Clark still ended up dead. And I fear that a decade from now, we'll acknowledge that racism by any other name is still racism and is not so easily corrected.

While Clark and other young black men like him die, the urge to fear "the other" is still alive and well, whatever the condition is called. An entire community needs to call out implicit bias – and racism – when it sees it. That makes a better slogan: More honest, live longer.