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Calls for better MBTA bias training after inspector removes black teen

Civil rights group says racial profiling & implicit bias behind removal from train

Jule Pattison-Gordon

In late July, 16-year-old Jelani was riding the Red Line home to make his 8:30 p.m. curfew. But his trip was interrupted when MBTA officials stopped the train to remove a group of rowdy children — and then forced Jelani to leave as well, according to a complaint filed on his behalf by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

According to the complaint, the MBTA inspector informed the teen that “everyone in that group has to get off.” Jelani and the other children are African American, but do not know each other.

On the web

National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice: https://trustandjustice.org/about/mission

Jelani had been sitting alone and playing a game on his phone as he waited through the delay. He informed the inspector he was not part of the group and did not know the children, who were ages eight to ten years-old. The children backed him up. It was not until a 23-year-old white female added her voice in confirmation that the MBTA officials let the teen reboard the train.

The Lawyers’ Committee alleges that the MBTA inspector assumed Jelani was part of the group on basis of his race alone. Jelani is older than the children, was not engaging with them and was not identified as part of the group by any of the three other MBTA officials involved, the complaint states. White children sitting in similar proximity to the group were not removed.

Among the requested remedies: that MBTA staff undergo comprehensive implicit bias training.

Unlike with explicit biases, individuals may have implicit or unconscious biases against a demographic without realizing they hold any negative assumptions or associations shaping their behaviors. This gives rise to what some, like the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, call “racism without racists.”

Combating implicit bias

The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice is a Department of Justice-funded project that aims to improve relationships between communities and the criminal justice system. Kim Burke, the associate project director for the Center for Policing Equity, leads the Initiative’s work on developing training to combat implicit bias.

Instructors make sure training is presented as education about unconscious forces in play during an interaction, not as a character attack on an officer, Burke told the Banner.

“Training is not about calling you a racist,” Burke said. “It’s about understanding that — even if you hold the most principled attitudes — there are certain situations that can make you vulnerable to negative outcomes, regardless of your values. And as a police officer, you’re chronically in those situations.”

When analyzing a situation, people are more likely to fall back on shortcuts like stereotyping if they are tired, stressed, multitasking, mentally fatigued, feeling like a rookie, forced to make a quick decision or in a bad mood, Burke said.

To combat this, instructors involve law officers in evaluating sample scenarios while considering what stereotypes could shape officers’ reactions, or members of the public’s reactions to them. The goal is that officers become aware of their own instincts and hidden factors that influence the behaviors of those with whom they interact. In training, they discuss strategies for handling situations in order to develop new approaches they can fall back on when forced to react quickly while in the field.

In one sample scenario, a black person walking down the street sees a group of officers and seems to throw a small bag to the side. In another, the pedestrian is white. Officers then consider their own reactions as well as what different perceptions the white and black pedestrians may have of police and how that might guide their behaviors.

The National Initiative implicit bias training comprises one eight-hour session with small group- and scenario-based discussions, and is meant to be preceded by two other units — one on repairing relationships between law enforcement and communities where there are histories of tensions, and one aimed to illuminate how officers’ interactions with members of the public can shape public perception and attitude toward law enforcement.

Boston’s training

The MBTA and Boston Police Department have bias training already in place.

At the MBTA, every few years all employees are required to attend an “Anti-Discrimination Harassment and Retaliation Training” on employee’s right and supervisor responsibilities and, once in their careers, a diversity training workshop on interacting respectfully and effectively with diverse customers and MBTA staff members, according to Joe Pesaturo, MBTA spokesperson. In the latter, participants discuss barriers, common experiences and ideas for workplace improvements, and practice related skills. A combination of staff from the Office of Diversity and Civil Rights and outside contractors are responsible for conducting the workshops.

In 2013, the BPD implemented a four-hour procedural justice and unconscious bias training for all new recruits and current officers, Lieutenant Detective Mike McCarthy, BPD spokesperson, told the Banner. The curriculum is based upon the work of Tracey Meares, a Yale Law School professor who also is involved in the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. It includes classroom time, conversations with community leaders and dispatching new officers into communities to interact with members of the public. BPD Superintendent Lisa Holms teaches the class.

Police officers and supervisors also must complete an e-learning course and exam, on awareness of biases and policing around them. To date, all officers have completed the training and/or the e-learning course, McCarthy said.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, said both group’s efforts do not go far enough, and that the treatment of Jelani stands as evidence of the MBTA training’s shortcoming.

“The incident … is a clear indication that whatever training [the MBTA is] using is not adequate and has failed to address the implicit bias and cultural competency requirements that the job entails,” Espinoza-Madrigal told the Banner. “What happened to our client should not have happened. If the right training and protocols were in place, it wouldn’t have happened.”