Police training to focus on implicit bias

Last modified: Wednesday, February 03, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Lawyers for an Amherst man receiving a financial settlement as part of a civil rights claim against Northampton’s Police Department say they received no response from city officials to their September 2014 request for a dialogue about the case and the potential for institutional changes.

Nonetheless, Police Chief Jody Kasper has undertaken initiatives aimed at strengthening community trust since being promoted to the top job seven months ago. Those include training on community relations, beginning later this month, in areas of race, ethnicity and bias.

Northampton City Council President William H. Dwight said it was Kasper’s community policing agenda and ideas that factored heavily in the city’s decision to promote her to police chief.

“Jody Kasper, even before she became police chief, was and is aggressive in trying to improve the diversity in the department,” Dwight said. “She isn’t just paying lip service.”

The Gazette reported Monday that Northampton’s insurance provider agreed to pay Jonas Correia $52,500 as part of an out-of-court settlement involving allegations that city police officers used excessive force and unlawfully arrested him outside a downtown bar in March 2013.

The incident was captured on video by a bystander and shows Correia getting pepper-sprayed in the face and tackled to the ground by police officers who had responded to a disturbance at the former Tully O’Reilly’s bar at Pearl and Pleasant streets. The video was posted on YouTube under the title “Northampton Massachusetts Police Brutality” and caused a controversy here three years ago.

Police, Correia and his lawyers have offered different versions of events; charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct brought against Correia were earlier dropped by prosecutors and the city. Mayor David J. Narkewicz stated Monday that he believes Northampton police acted “professionally and appropriately” and that there was no wrongdoing by officers.

‘Implicit bias’

But Northampton attorney William C. Newman, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who represented Correia along with Northampton attorney Luke Ryan, said it is “critical” that the city examine what happened and use the case as a teaching moment.

Newman and Ryan suggested in a 12-page letter to Narkewicz in September 2014, that “implicit bias” may have played a role in officers’ actions the night they arrested Correia. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect one’s understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner, experts say. Such biases are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control, according to one definition provided by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, an institution Correia’s lawyers cited in Correia’s claim.

“I do know in the criminal justice system there is implicit bias and it’s the entire system,” Newman said Wednesday. “What I think has been lost in this entire argument is that the police, unlike everyone else, have much more authority; they have enormous authority. Police acting with implicit bias has much greater consequence than when you or I do it.”

Asked whether he believes implicit bias was at work in Correia’s arrest, Newman replied, “We all need to be better because of the consequences of what we do when we treat people of color differently. I don’t have the answer to why this happened.”

Narkewicz declined an interview request Tuesday with the Gazette, stating he would not comment further on the Correia case. A day earlier, the mayor issued a statement along with a copy of the settlement agreement with Correia, which the city’s insurance provider handled. He noted that the settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing or liability on the part of the officers involved.

He stated that he had “full confidence in the men and women of our Police Department, and specifically the officers who put themselves in harm’s way dealing with unruly patrons at the former Tully O’Reilly’s bar in the early hour of March 31, 2013.”

Newman and Ryan had urged the city in their September 2014 claim, in which they provided a frame-by-frame analysis of the video capturing Correia’s arrest and examined officers’ narratives of the incident, to use the case as a “catalyst for improving the quality of service the NPD provides in cases involving people of color.”

“If the city reflexively offers uncritical support to the participants in Mr. Correia’s arrest, it will miss an opportunity to give officers the tools they need to ‘make correct, individualized decisions about suspects under the arduous circumstances in which they sometimes find themselves.’”

Police training imminent

For her part, Kasper has launched several initiatives and made a commitment to building and strengthening community trust and outreach since being appointed police chief seven months ago.

Kasper was a lieutenant at the time of Correia’s arrest and said she had no involvement in the case, including the Police Department’s internal review of the incident, which former police chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz said found no misconduct.

Kasper deferred specific comment about the Correia case to the mayor, but talked freely with the Gazette about her goals for the department. They include tailored training on effective community relations for patrol officers and sergeants that begins later this month. The training covers areas of race and ethnicity, implicit bias, systemic racism and the state of racial inequality in the country, Kasper said. The training was developed by Kenneth Williams and Claire Halverson from the School for International Training’s Graduate Institute in Brattleboro,

“I wanted to develop a training that was very specific to our department and our community and what I wanted our officers to get out of it,” Kasper said.

She also is working with Smith College professors and students on developing a survey to better understand how Northampton Police are serving the city’s residents.

“Are we in any way not meeting the needs of populations in our community? It’s what I want to know,” she said.

Training in implicit bias is not unique to Northampton Police Department and is occurring increasingly in many contexts, from law enforcement and the criminal justice system to schools and the workplace, said Linda R. Tropp, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who specializes in prejudice-reduction strategies and intergroup relations.

“I am well aware of many police departments around the country, as well as judges and others involved in criminal justice, receiving implicit bias training in the hopes of improving police-community relations and having a fair criminal justice system,” Tropp said. “Any of us can inadvertently express subtle biases of which we are not aware.”

She noted that two organizations at the forefront of this work are the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice and the Center for Policing Equity.

Dwight said he’s watched the video of Correia’s arrest several times and said he hasn’t been able to see enough to judge whether police acted appropriately or not in pepper-spraying and tackling Correia to the ground, but he added that the incident has raised issues that need to be addressed, and are.

“It’s clearly an indication that we have work to do as a community that’s not exclusive to the police but the community at large,” Dwight said. “There’s no spiking the ball in the end zone here that we’re arrived and we’re a post-racial community and kumbaya.” However, he added, “there’s an indication we’re moving in the right direction.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

23 Service Center Road
Northampton, MA 01060


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy