Jurisprudence

Why Techniques for Treating PTSD Should Be Used With Racially Biased Cops

A man protesting police brutality and systemic racism holds up his hands in front of a large contingent of police in riot gear behind barricades confining demonstrators to the Manhattan Bridge for hours during a citywide curfew in New York City at night
Reformers should not entirely abandon the goal of changing racist minds. Scott Heins/Getty Images

In recent years, advocates of police reform have, rightfully, been giving structural reforms special attention, from universal body cameras to calls to defund the police. This represents a shift in focus from changing racist minds to changing racist policies, recently and prominently expressed by Ibram X. Kendi in How to Be an Antiracist. “Changing minds is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change,” he writes.

But reformers should not entirely abandon the goal of changing racist minds. After all, it is the mind of the officer that tells them to pull the trigger. And it is the mind of the civilian that prompts them to call the police in the first place.

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If a tainted mind can end a life, changing that mind could save one. Policy change can take years, and in the meantime, people continue to suffer violence and indignities. Mental change and policy change can and should be pursued simultaneously.

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Unfortunately, the goal of mental change is much hazier than that of policy change. What is mental change, what kind do we seek, and how can we make it happen? You can also try to change somebody’s conscious, thinking mind, but as long as they still hold harmful unconscious biases, their good intentions will inevitably be undercut whenever they are stressed, fatigued, or otherwise mentally taxed. If we want to try to ensure that behavior is fair and inclusive no matter the circumstance, we must seek mental change at the emotional level, where implicit biases are held. We must actually rewire default thinking of law enforcement to become impulsively inclusive.

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As we search for ways to change the implicitly biased mind, we can look to treatment of mental illness for guidance. In some forms of treatment, it is the express and singular goal to change an individual’s emotional responses to certain stimuli. These therapies use intellectual change as a means to achieve the end goal of emotional change.

While the specifics vary, these treatments rely on neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to build new neural pathways and rewire a person’s default emotions, reactions, and behaviors. This type of emotional-therapeutic treatment has proved to be quite effective in treating PTSD and anxiety. With this model in hand, we should begin to explore treating implicit bias less like an inevitability or personal failure and more like a mental illness.

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All too often, the lone goal of implicit bias training is to become aware of implicit bias, its operation, and its repercussions. Some trainings expressly disclaim any intention of “counterprogramming” the emotional mind. Others offer participants few tangible steps for what to do with their new knowledge. Behavioral and emotional change, it is generally implied, will just flow naturally from participants’ heightened awareness. But how exactly do participants translate this newfound awareness into any behavioral change?

Achieving real-world behavioral change requires more than the typical one-off training sessions that make up many current implicit bias programs. As in traditional therapy, implicit bias therapy would occur not through a single slideshow presentation but in regularly scheduled, deeply interactive sessions held over an extended period of time. Concretely, that might look like one-on-one therapy, an ongoing guided support group, or even a school curriculum.

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In implicit bias therapy, emotional change would be the singular end goal, as it is in treatment for mental illnesses. An intellectual understanding of implicit bias would be a means to achieving that end rather than the end itself. Through repeated sessions or classes, this emotional-therapeutic approach would be uniquely focused on guiding participants step by step to and through the process of actively breaking down unwanted implicit associations and constructing new positive ones.

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There are already models for this sort of teaching that can be incorporated into various levels of education, from K–12 to ongoing training for law enforcement. The study of anthropology is a century-old bias reduction strategy, for instance. It’s built upon the dual principles of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, which work in tandem to not only recognize the existence of implicit biases but to actively interrogate them, dismantle them, and establish new positive associations in their place.

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As a school or training curriculum, a program modeled after the principles of this field would require regular and extended engagement with these ideas. It would also demand repeated application of those ideas to real life through assignments and projects where participants scrutinize their assumptions and associations, attempt to shed them, and immerse themselves in perspectives of others. The intended outcome is permanent reframing or paradigm shift where learners disassociate sociocultural difference with negative feelings or reactions like “wrong, scary, confounding” and reassociate it with positive feelings and reactions like “interesting, enriching, meaningful.”

As an added benefit, such a shift in approach would be broader and more fundamental than just focusing on race and could apply to any number of harmful implicit biases based on sex, gender identity, religion, or other traits. It also may be “neutral” enough to avoid some of the negative knee-jerk reactions sometimes seen in response to the popular approach to implicit bias training.

If successful, an emotional-therapeutic classroom approach would elicit a profound and durable emotional change and impulsively inclusive feelings. Only then might true behavioral change be possible.

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