On Wednesday morning, members of the Bristol Police Department and local officials gathered at Fire Department headquarters for an annual training session on recognizing and understanding bias in …
On Wednesday morning, members of the Bristol Police Department and local officials gathered at Fire Department headquarters for an annual training session on recognizing and understanding bias in policing. Sgt. Wesley Pennington of the Rhode Island State Police served as the administrator of the training, assisted by Trooper Krystal Carvalho.
Members of the community as well as local officials were included in the conversation, which was held both as a standard best practice as well as a requirement for maintaining the department’s national accreditation.
In opening the event, Police Chief Kevin Lynch praised his department for maintaining high standards of excellence, while adding that there is always room for improvement. Citing a 2018 story that identified some anomalies in the proportion of minorities cited for traffic violations in Bristol, where 94 percent of residents are caucasian, he noted that the data was skewed due to the fact that 60 percent of those traffic stops were not Bristol residents but rather those coming and going from Colt State Park, a popular summer destination.
“How people feel about the Bristol Police Department is important to all of us,” said Chief Lynch. He described a Channel 12 study that showed that the towns of Bristol and Burrillville were tied for the lowest use of force among all towns in the state of Rhode Island. “I’m proud of the work you are doing out in the field,” he said to the officers.
Town Administrator and former member of the Bristol Police Department Steven Contente echoed the chief’s thoughts. “I know you well and what you stand for,” he said to the officers. “Listen to these people. They have same interests we have — we all want everyone to be treated fairly.
“Thank you, and I appreciate the hard work you do.”
Sgt. Pennington, a 26-year veteran of the Rhode Island State Police, as well as an ordained pastor and football coach, knows something about serving and engaging with the community. The same is true for trooper Carvalho. “I was raised in a very community-based family,” she said. “My dad was always helping inner-city kids go from something to nothing.”
Their question for the assembled Bristol officers? What is bias, and how does that affect the way we do our jobs and live our lives.
“It is important that we both recognize and understand the impacts of bias, both implicit and explicit,” said Sgt. Pennington.
Using video clips as well as conversation, the program covered topics ranging from cultural attribution to the historical underpinnings of racial bias to the fallacy of “reverse racism.” Sgt. Pennington asked his fellow law enforcers if it is possible for a law to be the law of the land and still be morally wrong, reminding everyone that slavery itself was a practice once protected by law.
Showing a clip from the movie “Crash,” he illustrated how biases and stereotypes can lead people to react in ways they may not have planned. “Are stereotypes rational?” he asked. “Are they moral? Now flip the script and ask how a police officer might deal with the situation.”
Implicit bias, he asserted, is at the foundation of a lot of unjust acts, whether a person is aware of their biases or not. “You can get up in the morning believing you want to treat everyone fairly, but your bias might interfere with that.”
“Do you want to be on the 6 o’clock news tonight?” Sgt. Pennington asked. “Of course you don’t. Of those police nationwide making headlines for brutality and excessive force, not one of those people woke up planning to be on the 6 o’clock news.”