Credit Chief Steven Russo and the Keene Police Department for moving smartly to improve the ethics and bias training programs given its officers. The new programs come among the heightened nationwide concern about systemic racism and implicit bias, particularly with law enforcement, that followed the murder of George Floyd last May by a Minneapolis police officer.
Shortly afterward, Gov. Chris Sununu convened a commission on law enforcement accountability and transparency in New Hampshire — the so-called LEACT commission — and a strong component of its unanimous recommendations was that law enforcement agencies require at least two hours of annual training for its officers in implicit bias, ethics and de-escalation. Meanwhile, the city’s own ad-hoc Racial Justice and Community Safety Committee undertook an examination of systemic and cultural inequities in Keene. While in its March report to the City Council the committee made no specific recommendation regarding bias training for Keene’s police, one of the report’s key observations calls for implicit bias in the community to be identified, “not to cause conflict,” but to raise awareness and help better the community.
The KPD has conducted bias training in the past, Russo said in an email to The Sentinel, but he acknowledged its programs were due for an overhaul. Now, the department has announced it will be partnering with Keene State College’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the college’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies Department to launch a new training program focused on unconscious bias and ethics. The training will be funded by a grant from the Keene-based Panjandrum Foundation.
The move by the police department to partner with the college is innovative and promising, and not simply to work with a local institution, but to capitalize on its recognized expertise. Last year, Keene State Holocaust and Genocide Studies professor James Waller worked with the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities in New York and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta to develop a similar training program for police departments around the country, and it is now already in use by the Atlanta Police Department.
For the KPD, Waller will lead the implicit bias training module that’s designed to help officers recognize any implicit or unconscious bias and keep it from influencing their decision-making. And Cohen Center director Peter McBride will teach a trauma-informed policing module that focuses on traumatic experiences affecting police officers, as well as individuals and their communities, and how those experiences may compromise risk assessment and sound ethical judgments in policing. Russo also said the program could be applied for de-escalation training.
Especially encouraging is that the two two-hour training programs, in addition to doubling the department’s prior training modules to meet the LEACT commission’s recommendations, are designed to be more participatory and allow for more reflection and interaction among participants, an approach Russo described as unique. That should lead to more of the introspection and self-assessment that are key for anyone, including police officers, to understand what unconscious biases they may have and how to address them.
The police department’s new training partnership with Keene State is a meaningful step toward assisting officers in making sound ethical and impartial judgments. As Russo told The Sentinel, ethics and an impartiality are at the core of law enforcement, and “we all need to be cognizant of the ethical- and bias-based dilemmas we run into literally daily in our work and how our beliefs can affect our actions.”