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ACLU meeting tackles bias in police~ RH 11-8-15

ACLU meeting tackles bias in police
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | November 08, 2015

Photo by Chip Allen Maria Mercedes Avila, adjunct faculty at UVM specializing in racial disparities in health care, speaks to the audience at the ACLU of Vermont’s annual meeting Saturday in Montpelier.

MONTPELIER — Inherent biases are present in everyone and efforts must be taken to overcome them, according to a panel that led a discussion on racial profiling at the American Civil Liberty Union of Vermont’s annual meeting Saturday.

The panel discussion, part of the ACLU’s 48th annual meeting at the Capitol Plaza hotel, was inspired by recent police shootings and racial tensions rising around the country. But Saturday’s discussion was a broader conversation about bias beyond race.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo spoke of the challenges officers face with bias as they respond to calls.

The “911 model of policing,” when an officer responds to a specific call, contributes to inherent bias, he said, because police often show up with limited information about what is often a crisis situation.

“I’m sure you have pretty entrenched dogmas, as do I, about the prevalence and harm that police bias can have,” he told about 100 people at the meeting.

For example, he said police often receive calls in which a person makes a report about “three shady characters at a park on a bench.” A police officer will often “rely on your biases,” he said.

“We respond to these very murky situations,” del Pozo said. “He or she has to make a determination — are they up to no good? What kind of kid makes a troublemaker? You can see where the bias starts to creep in.”

The Burlington Police Department, like others around the country, is focused on implementing community policing in which officers are more involved in communities and know the residents. Getting to know communities makes it easier to dispense with inherent bias, he said,

Karen Richards, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said people are often not aware they are influenced by their biases.

“We’re talking about the fact that when you are engaging in your daily actives there is very little you’re doing that engages the conscious part of your brain,” she said. “Perceptions are governed by all the things that happen around you.”

Recognizing inherent bias is part of the process of learning to effectively deal with it, Richards said.

“You really do have to learn to control those reactions and get them into your higher-brain processing if you’re going to be able to undo the implicit bias that we all have,” she said.

She noted that segregation continues to be “deeply entrenched” in American cities.

“The driving forces behind that have been the federal government, state government and local government and where they choose to put resources,” Richards said.

Community policing will not work effectively in those areas until some level of trust is restored between communities and the police, she said.

“Is community policing going to solve those problems there? Absolutely not, because there’s no trust there between the police and the community,” she said.

Meanwhile, Maria Mercedes Avila, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont who teaches a course on racism and health disparities, said many Vermonters do not believe racial issues or other forms of discrimination exist here.

“What I found is that I hear people say in Vermont, ‘We don’t have these issues because we are a liberal state,’” the Argentine native said. “This is one of the most conservative places I’ve lived in.”

Biases in health care are real and have been studied, she said. A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that provider bias is linked to poor health outcomes, she said, and poor communication between providers and patients and health literacy issues also lead to poor health outcomes.

Avila said many providers she has trained are unfamiliar with Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

Similarly, Avila said many providers have not heard of the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Health Care, which are intended to advance health equity, improve quality and help eliminate health care disparities by implementing culturally and linguistically appropriate services.

“We don’t need research to understand that if people have never heard of them it’s impossible to implement them,” she said.

It is just as important that health care providers understand their biases, according to Avila.

“We have to be aware that we all carry biases, we are all capable of bias,” she said. “We have to be aware that we carry them and then we have to put them in check.”

neal.goswami @timesargus.com

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