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Ashland police chief works on untangling assumptions from deductions

“You can’t fill in the blanks on anybody. You can’t make up information when it’s not presented to you.”

Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara is talking about the cutting edge of modern police work called “Fair and Impartial Policing,” which takes into account a body of work and research into “implicit bias.” This form of bias is a way of thinking which quickly categorizes people mostly by appearance. Everyone has some level of implicit bias but is often not aware of it, according to O’Meara. 

O'Meara received training on the issue last year and is now among those in his profession working to educate other officers and community leaders about implicit bias, recognize it and address it. Police agencies around the country are using the training, says O’Meara, to better prepare officers as they approach a wide variety of community members with a higher level of fairness and care. 

It’s a game changer in this country, says O’Meara, by establishing better training for officers as they respond. “Through police legitimacy we can get back in the good graces of the American people. We can be seen again as a group the community wants to engage with and to solve problems rather than be seen as the problem.”

O’Meara is optimistic that his training and now the discussion and training of the 28 officers and 37 people of the Ashland Police Department will lead to better feelings for everyone when they touch base with a cop. “If people are given respect and neutrality, even if they don’t get what they want, they still walk away with a positive feeling about what happened” says O’Meara. “Every interaction we have, whether dealing with a millionaire or homeless person, needs to be the same.”

In Ashland, much of the tension around what's been called "downtown behavior issues" has surrounded the disparity of opinions around people who are variously described as homeless, home-free, travelers and on the homeless spectrum.

Chief O’Meara says it’s often not so simple as many would like to believe. He describes a phenomena of non-housed people which is striking the whole country, but is especially prevalent on the West Coast up and down the I-5 corridor.

“We’re trained to make judgments about people," he says. "We’re programmed to view people as homeless or homed. If you’re homeless (we’re trained to think) there’s something wrong with you. ... We need to shift our focus. There are economic refugees, there are people kicked out of their homes because they are gay, there are people who lose supports. We can’t paint the entire community with a broad brush.” 

The chief first received implicit bias training a year ago at Boston University and recently went to another workshop with Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls for more extensive training. He says he believes that implicit bias, which is unconscious bias as a result of our socialization — media and experts in the field all it  “the air we breathe” — is vital to recognize in ourselves and each other.

O’Meara is quick to point out this form of bias does not need to be judged, because everyone has some form of it and it affects everyone. “This is a problem for anyone who is not a white, straight, Christian male. If we take away any of those pieces the person is diminished.”

O’Meara points specifically at implicit bias towards members of the black community. “There are studies that show very clearly that people view members of the African American community to be more dangerous, more violent and more aggressive. This is a great injustice in the community and we have to be aware of implicit bias to solve it.”

When asked how his officers and staff are taking the training, the police chief says, “They’re eating it up.” It’s an ongoing training aimed at self-reflection and each person looking at the way their implicit bias is affecting their actions. He says it’s important to “recognize the programming is there,” although he never asks anyone what their implicit biases may be. That’s up to them to recognize and resolve. Like most things, the first step is recognizing and admitting, says O’Meara.

He is optimistic about Ashland and its prospects for working with implicit bias in all ways, including the way people on the homeless spectrum are addressed in Ashland. “We’re at the starting gate. We have the best chance we’ve ever had,” he says, while pointing out that all agencies are beginning to buy in to implicit bias toward this community and see the need to address it differently from a more holistic angle.

“I feel overwhelmingly supported by Ashland. But Ashland challenges authority, it doesn’t accept because someone says 'that’s how it is.' I don’t mind the challenge.” He says that challenge leads to greater transparency, like the fact that in a few weeks the Police Policy Manual will be published online so people can see why police officers do what they do and, if they aren’t doing it right, people can point it out. 

O’Meara will continue to offer implicit bias training, procedural justice and policing legitimacy in his department. The chief expects this approach to spread among other departments, saying, “I just got an email from another police chief organizing a conference.

“I think the implicit bias awareness is going to affect a lot of police work,” he says, while describing himself as cautiously optimistic. “The greater awareness officers have, the better they can do in treating people fairly.”

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.