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Oakland tries to address how deeply rooted biases affect law enforcement

December 16, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
In some communities, the long-tense relationships between law enforcement and minorities are suddenly very public and very hard to ignore. Special correspondent Jackie Judd reports from Oakland on efforts to improve relations, using research from Stanford University on the deep and often hidden biases on race and inequality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: race and justice in America.

Tonight, we look at efforts in Oakland, California, to address bias where it exists in law enforcement.

Special correspondent Jackie Judd has the story.

PROTESTER: If I can’t breathe!

PROTESTERS: You can’t breathe!

JACKIE JUDD: The racial turmoil in the U.S. stemming from encounters between police and black men strikes a chord with Jennifer Eberhardt. The social psychologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, has spent her career exploring racial bias and how that plays out in the criminal justice system.

Still, it came as a shock to her how embedded biases can be, biases we’re not even aware of.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT, Stanford University: I’m on an airplane with my son. And he looks up and he sees a black man, and he says, “Hey, that guy looks like daddy.”

And I look at the guy, he doesn’t look anything like my husband, and I notice he’s the only black guy on the plane. And he says, “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.”

And I said, “Well, why would you say that?”

And he looked at me and he said, “I don’t know why I said that.”

And so we’re living with such severe racial stratification that even a 5-year-old can tell us what’s supposed to happen next.

JACKIE JUDD: Eberhardt has moved from the research lab to the streets of Oakland, 35 miles north of Palo Alto and a world away, to help a troubled police department change its ways.

Like Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island, the Oakland Police Department has an uneasy relationship with the minority community it serves.

MAN: There’s times when I’m walking down the street, and I’m accosted.

MAN: He didn’t even ask me for my name. The first thing he said, are you on probation, on parole?

JACKIE JUDD: Only 28 percent of the population here is black, but the majority of police stops, searches and arrests involves black residents. In 2009, an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, was shot dead at the Fruitvale BART station. Even though a transit officer killed Grant, long-simmering resentment towards city officers erupted.

RASHIDAH GRINAGE, People United for a Better Life in Oakland: This area is known as the Fruitvale area of Oakland.

JACKIE JUDD: Rashidah Grinage became a community organizer after a confrontation in her home 21 years ago, which led to the death of her husband, who was black, their son, and a police officer.

RASHIDAH GRINAGE: Good morning. This is Rashidah.

JACKIE JUDD: Today, while Grinage says there are some fine officers and progressive commanders in the department, she believes two systems of justice prevail, one for wealthy whites in the hills around Oakland and another for minority residents in the flatlands.

RASHIDAH GRINAGE: There is an intuition that officers have about what they can do under which circumstances, depending on what neighborhood they’re in, depending on what they believe to be the socioeconomic profile, and the resources of that person or that person’s family.

JACKIE JUDD: And the police department would probably say because that’s where most crime takes place.

RASHIDAH GRINAGE: But we’re basing assumptions on the group someone belongs to. And that is racial or ethnic profiling.

JACKIE JUDD: Back in 2003, the Oakland Police Department agreed to implement court-ordered reforms that grew out of the case in which several officers were accused of framing criminal suspects. To this day, leaders are still struggling to improve relations between the police and the public.

Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa, tasked with finding ways to eliminate racial bias, as the court ordered, is teamed with Jennifer Eberhardt to help change the entrenched culture.

ASSISTANT CHIEF PAUL FIGUEROA, Oakland Police Department: Those are the questions that I get asked quite a bit in various meetings.


PAUL FIGUEROA: Well, what’s it like in East Oakland compared to West Oakland?


One of the big things that I focused on is just what I call the race-crime association or the black-crime association.

So it’s not surprising really that people might associate blackness with crime, but it can come up in surprising ways or it can influence us in ways that we don’t always recognize or know about.

JACKIE JUDD: And that so-called implicit bias is what Eberhardt is sharing with department supervisors. Among the many studies of bias that she’s conducted, one in particular brought a startling discovery.

Study participants were shown pictures of black and white men all in very rapid-fire succession. Then they were shown fuzzy images of weapons, which slowly became clear.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: The black faces facilitated the detection of the crime objects, whereas the white faces inhibited the detection of those very same crime objects. So, for those objects, just being exposed really quickly to these black male faces led them to need less information or fewer frames before they could pick out what those objects were.


JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yes, right, exactly. So, they needed fewer frames before they said, oh, that’s a gun or that’s a knife.

The stereotype of blacks as hostile, dangerous and criminal is one of the strongest stereotypes in American society.

JACKIE JUDD: It is not always easy for department supervisors to hear what Eberhardt has to say, but they listen, and then try to sensitize officers.

LT. LERONNE ARMSTRONG, Oakland Police Department: You’re not alone in this, right? You’re not the only one sitting in the classroom thinking, wow, is that me? You know, you could see the looks on everyone’s face, that they’re going, oh, OK.

JACKIE JUDD: What kind of pushback do you get from officers when you’re asking them to do things having to do with racial sensitivity?

PAUL FIGUEROA: Oftentimes, some of the pushback is, well, are we being called a racist? Is this — what’s all the accusations coming at us when we’re working as hard as we can to bring about safety to the community? And that’s part of the conversation.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: And the agenda is to look at the multiple stopgaps.

JACKIE JUDD: Eberhardt and a team of student researchers also are in the midst of analyzing stop data and, importantly, body-cam videos from Oakland police to determine what happens in that crucial and sometimes fraught moment between officer and citizen.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: So you can look at things like pitch. You can look at the rate at which people are speaking, and you can look at loudness. And those things can tell you a lot about whether things are heated, whether things are going to escalate.


JACKIE JUDD: It is the power of videos that brought tragedies, like those in Cleveland and Staten Island, to public attention. Eberhardt hopes the videos she is examining become tools that lead to better policing.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: I feel like we’re in a moment now where things can really shift. We’re in a position to actually know, to really understand and to know what happens in these interactions and why it is that sometimes they go awry.

PAUL FIGUEROA: I really think Jennifer’s research is going to help us identify what issues are there and design some strategies to help us intervene in some circumstances and, in others, question our programs and policies that are leading to some of these outcomes.

JACKIE JUDD: Assistant Chief Figueroa acknowledges it will take years to transform the department. Promises have been made before.

Lieutenant LeRonne Armstrong, who leads his own racial sensitivity session, knows the department has a lot of king to convincing to do.

LT. LERONNE ARMSTRONG: We’re as close as we have ever been to finally coming into compliance with all the requirements of the negotiated settlement agreement.

JACKIE JUDD: Does the immunity feel it?

LT. LERONNE ARMSTRONG: I don’t know if the community feels it, because, when you look at the climate in the community currently, it doesn’t seem that way.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: I think people are feeling vulnerable in different ways on both sides. I mean, you have community members who feel vulnerable around the police. And then there’s a vulnerability on the police side, where, when something happens in Ferguson or anywhere in the country, police departments all over the nation feel it.

MAN: You’re supposed to be feeling safe because the police are there, but it’s like, whenever I do see them, it’s like I don’t feel as safe. It’s kind of like irony.

JACKIE JUDD: This is Jackie Judd in Oakland, California, for the “NewsHour.”