Aug. 25, 2016 04:53 PM

Top cops and community leaders convene for a police training program implemented to stave racially-tinged conflict among law enforcement and the community.

Sheriff Mark Garber, fourth from the right, listens to a presentation on impartial policing with City Administrative Officer Lowell Duhon and black clergyman to his left, and top LPSO officers to his right.
Photo by Robin May

Black clergy, reporters, city officials, old cops and new sheriff brass convened this week for two days of coursework on rooting out racism and bias in everyday policing. The seminar, sponsored by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office and held at the Lafayette Public Safety Complex, confronted implicit, unconscious bias as the key culprit in inequitable policing, as opposed to bald and overt racism.

During last year's campaign, Sheriff Mark Garber committed to shoring up enforcement and on-the-ground policing for his agency, promising to ride a delicate balance between his office’s responsibilities to protect citizens and his intention to continue the successful alternative sentencing programs implemented by his predecessor, retired Sheriff Mike Neustrom.

A professed numbers man, Garber remarked at the seminar’s outset that he viewed the cost to host the seminar, roughly $5,000, and subsequent in-service training for deputy supervisors, roughly $15,000, as a necessary investment in developing community trust that could forestall conflict between his agency and the public it serves.

“This is something that’s near and dear to my heart. We have a good relationship with the public. That’s a precious thing,” Garber said. “It’s something we have to work toward every day. I want to make some deposits so later on we can make some withdrawals.”

Garber contracted Fair and Impartial Policing — a police training organization that works with the U.S. Department of Justice — for this seminar, held for command level staff, and for future training sessions of field supervisors who would, in turn, train current and future deputies.

FIP educator Scott Cunningham coursed over psychological bases for implicit bias, hinging his policy and practice prescriptions on scientific studies suggesting that bias is fundamental to human cognition and not necessarily a symptom of ill-intention. Cunningham's recommended antidote is improved contact among officers and the public, by way of casual conversation and positive interaction, increasing staff diversity and promoting awareness among officers of their own innate biases.

Subtle, unconscious biases, Cunningham suggested, are more difficult to ferret out than of hot tempered “Archie Bunkers" that create flash points of controversy from within the rank and file. He said most police agencies do a good job of filtering out bad seeds early in the hiring process, and suggested that race-motivated police violence or injustice is more an aberration than the norm. Still, as his lecture emphasized, basic biases persist among otherwise upstanding officers.

The proceedings naturally waded into sensitive topics like racial profiling and sparked, at times, terse discussion among gathered law enforcement officers and black community stakeholders.

The Rev. Chester Arceneaux, a black pastor of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, recalled being detained, along with his brother, by Los Angeles police scouring the streets for black males connected to a reported burglary, while he visited family some time ago. Police told him he and his brother “fit the description,” he remembered, when he asked why they had stopped him.

Several attending officers expressed frustration with being scapegoated for societal racism when responding to calls. If a white citizen reports a suspicious black citizen in his or her neighborhood, they said, it’s not the responding officer’s bias at play, but perhaps a symptom of larger ills in community relationships. Police, they argued, are often unfairly saddled with accusations of prejudice more appropriately appended to citizens who called them.

Cunningham commended LPSO’s standing impartial policing policy, noting that it was clearly defined and consistent with standards recommended by CALEA, a police accreditation agency. He suggested widening the application of the department’s policy to include all police activity, rather than the few duties enumerated in the policy statement.

He remarked that Lafayette has not been visited by the horrific violence that has flared around police-involved shootings this year or by findings of departmental racism that often result in an expensive oversight process initiated by the DOJ.

He characterized Garber's decision to host an FIP training as thus proactive and preventative.

According to Maj. Rick Chargois, the LPSO’s training commander, the department will conduct more FIP training in the coming months, to which officers from other police agencies in and out of Acadiana will be invited. He also said that coursework in impartial policing will be included in the curriculum for ALETA, the parish’s police training academy, and in quarterly in-service training.

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