Recognizing and overcoming bias

  • “In unfamiliar or rapidly changing situations, humans ‘see’ only a thin slice of the whole picture, often filling the rest in with what they think should be there. This leap is often based on stereotypes,” explains Ian Cyr, the deputy chief for the University of Massachusetts Police Department.

  • Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition coordinator J. Cherry Sullivan (right) teamed up with Ian Cyr, the deputy chief for the University of Massachusetts Police Department and a national trainer with the Fair and Impartial Policing program, to teach officers to recognize bias and take steps to overcome it. Submitted photo

Published: 1/2/2019 11:06:51 AM

Stereotypes about people with substance use disorder are barriers to getting people help and ultimately, saving lives. The role of stigma and unconscious bias in the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths plays out in many ways — inhibiting people struggling with addiction from seeking help because they are afraid of judgment and rejection, preventing families from reaching out for support for similar reasons and blocking vitally important funding when elected officials view opioid misuse as a failure of will rather than the disease and public health tragedy it represents.

Hampshire HOPE’s county-wide Drug Addiction and Recovery Team, DART, pairs specially trained police officers with recovery coaches and harm reduction educators to reach out to people who have recently overdosed, and therefore are at higher risk of overdose death, as well as their family members. The tangible work of DART is to connect people to healing services. Arguably more important (and difficult to measure) is the relationship-building that takes place. DART teams work to build relationships to ensure people at risk of overdose death feel supported — whether they continue to use drugs or seek treatment and recovery.

Hampshire County DART officers are trained in the brain science of addiction and evidence-based recommendations to help people struggling with substance misuse. Meanwhile, we know unconscious bias impacts that work. This is why Hampshire HOPE has teamed up with Ian Cyr, the deputy chief for the University of Massachusetts Police Department and a national trainer with the Fair and Impartial Policing program to teach officers to recognize bias and take steps to overcome it. J. Cherry Sullivan is coordinator for the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department.

SULLIVAN: In your work with police, we’ve asked you to present a deeper understanding of the role played by bias and stereotypes in this epidemic. Can you explain why identifying implicit bias as it relates to substance use disorder is important for police? How does it relate to stigma?

CYR: Human bias has been the focus of many scientific studies whose findings indicate that even well-intentioned people carry bias that is often unconscious. Every minute, our implicit thinking system processes millions of pieces of information and quickly categorizes it, attributing particular characteristics to a situation, group or individual. This is a bias or stereotype and it might be negative or positive toward an individual or group. This is essentially a safety strategy hard wired into our brains. In unfamiliar or rapidly changing situations, humans ‘see’ only a thin slice of the whole picture, often filling the rest in with what they think should be there. This leap is often based on stereotypes, which may or may not be accurate. Our logical thinking system is more deliberate in processing information, leading to more thorough assessments. Decisions based on stigmas or stereotypes (positive or negative) can create unsafe, ineffective, and unjust approaches toward tackling this issue in our community. We work to engage that logical thinking system, bringing it into play when the implicit system has taken over.

SULLIVAN: I think you could say that police need to work even harder than the average resident to do this work because of their role in the community and the ways their work intersects with the lives of people who use opioids. What do you think about that, Ian?

CYR:  It’s true that unconscious bias, whether regarding race, gender, sexual orientation or substances misuse, is a human condition, not specific to police. Exposure to so many sources of stigma and negative stereotype shapes the way all humans think. Since I work with police, that’s where I’m trying to effect change. I believe when we recognize the presence of unconscious bias, we go a long way toward neutralizing it. It’s still there, but less likely to affect the interaction with the individual in need.

SULLIVAN:  In talking with people who use drugs or are in recovery, I hear stories of how biases may influence the way they are treated by health providers, employers and law enforcement. Can you tell me a little bit about how you neutralize unconscious bias?

CYR: Police officers, who connect with so many different people in their communities, can reduce bias by actively identifying it in themselves or others and then consciously putting it aside in order to make clear-headed decisions. This allows them to treat people with respect and fairness while demonstrating trustworthiness and neutrality. Meanwhile, when they understand the brain science around addiction, as well as the science of bias, they’ll have a greater understanding of the nuances of both. It’s important to note that community members also hold bias toward police officers so there’s room for improvement on both sides of this issue. Police can reduce stereotypes by having positive contact with community members, even while fulfilling their duties. Cherry, I’ve got a question for you:  What are some of the stereotypes people struggling with addiction have about police?

SULLIVAN: I hear people say they don’t believe that police actually want to help them. They’ve had negative experiences in the past that have shaped their perceptions. One of the most important goals of the DART program is to establish trust. I want people to see that there are officers who are passionate about helping people suffering from substance use disorders. They really do care. What thoughts do you have about effective way to reduce stigma?

CYR:  Police can reduce the impact of stigma by understanding the effect that substance use has on the brain. At the same time, just because an individual suffers from addiction, doesn’t mean the community stops holding them accountable for crimes they may commit. DART resources bridge a gap between police and a person dealing with addiction. Change will take place one interaction at a time. As success stories grow, word will spread among police and the community that we are here to help.  

SULLIVAN: Training individual officers is a start. But there’s a bigger cultural shift here we need to make, one that is vital to ensuring people truly feel supported. How do people in power, like law enforcement, show they are trustworthy?

CYR: There’s no arguing that police/community relationships have been strained in certain areas for a variety of reasons. There are systemic challenges that both police and the community face. When you add in actions by police that are perceived to, or actually do, violate the public trust, that reinforces negative stereotypes. It’s important to try to rebuild that trust. Change starts at the top of a police organization and progressive departments are paying attention to national issues, specifically those involving tension between police and communities. DART’s approach breaks some of the suspicion between police and people with substance misuse disorder. “Contact theory” works two ways in that both parties begin to increase trust and gain more positive feelings for that “type” of person. This develops counter stereotypes which decreases the power of stereotypes by having positive interactions between groups of people.

SULLIVAN: That experience of getting to know each other reminds me that stories matter. For example, relapse, which is part of addiction, is often judged by our society as a “failure,” rather than a part of the process for many. One example of how we can reframe that is to ask police — and everyone in the community, really — to move thoughts like “They are never going to change” to questions like “Why does this keep happening?” What tools or support do they need?”

CYR: Police officers are required to respond to a wide variety of situations every day. Some may require the utmost empathy, some may require actions to save the officer’s life. Day to day, there can be a tendency to be one dimensional and put up a wall, but I believe being genuine is a great source of strength. If officers can genuinely demonstrate their human side, the public responds in kind. In trainings with police, I describe this as making deposits in the bank of public trust; the hope is that community then reinforces this shift by changing their assumptions. Making this type of change is not a one-time training, it’s an unfolding process.

SULLIVAN:  Thanks, Ian. Culture shift can be a bit amorphous and not always possible to measure. But people’s experiences with one another matter. I want to hear from people who are at risk of overdose and their family members and at the same time, continue to bolster the voices of people, like DART officers, working to neutralize unconscious biases and reduce stigma. That work will shift a cultural norm toward something more empathic toward substance use disorder.

Ian Cyr is the deputy chief for the University of Massachusetts Police Department. J. Cherry Sullivan is coordinator for the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Depart ment. Members of the coalition contribut e to a monthly column in this space about local efforts underway to address the opioid epidemic.

 




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