Counter-bias police training simulator gets first large-scale test

Assistant Professor of Nursing Lois James
WSU nursing professor Lois James stands in front of a screen showing one of the simulations featured in CBTSim.

By Addy Hatch, College of Nursing

Two hundred patrol officers in the Cleveland police department will undergo training to recognize their subconscious biases using a simulator developed by an assistant professor in the WSU College of Nursing.

The large-scale training is part of a $750,000 research grant awarded to Lois James, Ph.D., by the National Institute of Justice, the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lois James and her colleague Stephen James, Ph.D., assistant research professor in the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, developed Counter Bias Training Simulation (CBTSim), a portable simulator that presents officers with realistic scenarios in which they are required to make shoot-or-don’t-shoot decisions. The scenarios are based on 30 years of data on police use of force, and repeatedly expose officers to simulations where the suspect’s characteristics, such as age, gender or race, aren’t predictably related to the outcome.

No comparative evidence yet

Such training is a response to national concerns about bias in police decision-making that arose following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Implicit-bias training has become common in law enforcement agencies nationwide. So far, however, there has been no evidence on whether simulation-based training, traditional classroom lectures, or a combination of the two is most effective in changing police behavior.

“Rigorous, randomized controlled trials such as the one proposed are desperately required to inform policy and practice at the national level,” Lois James wrote in her grant application to the National Institute of Justice.

Four participant groups

James’ study will randomly assign 400 patrol officers with the Cleveland police department to one of four groups:

  • One will receive classroom training in implicit bias.
  • Another group will be trained using the CBTSim simulator.
  • A third group will be trained using both methods.
  • A fourth control group won’t receive any additional training.

Results will be measured by scoring body-camera footage, the number of citizen complaints received, police surveys and focus groups, and surveys of people arrested to see whether they felt they were treated fairly. The goal is to identify best practices for reducing unconscious or subconscious bias, leading to improved police decision-making and enhanced citizen trust.

Police welcome study

The research study is supported by both the Cleveland Division of Police and Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission.

The three-year research project will begin on Jan. 1, with police training beginning in the spring of 2019. James is principal investigator, with co-investigators Stephen James and Elizabeth Dotson, M.S., research assistant, WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center. Also on the research team are Renee Mitchell, Ph.D., of the Sacramento Police Department, who’s an evidence-based policing consultant, and Mary Davis, executive director of the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission.

Davis said in a letter of support for the project that the research is “of critical importance to the future of implicit bias training.” And Calvin Williams, chief of the Cleveland police department, wrote, “We understand the commitment required to participate, and are excited to play a pioneering role in the evaluation of implicit bias training for improving police decision-making, promoting public perceptions of police legitimacy, and enhancing the outcomes of police-citizen interactions.”