Checking and Changing Biases for the People and the Systems

They protect our city and their purpose is to protect and serve us all equally. It is strenuous, stressful and very dangerous.

I sit and imagine what it must be like for Officer Kenny today. Almost three weeks ago he was sent out on a call. He shot and killed a 19 year old. Tony Robinson.
If only he weren’t dead.
If only he would have sustained injuries and lived.
If only he were still alive.
I imagine the desperation of Officer Kenny trying to revive him. That’s what I heard at least, that he tried to revive him.

I read this article written about Officer Kenny and I immediately thought that I would definitely want him to show up if I were in need. It is a long article with a very positive tone to it. The articles I’ve read about Tony are shorter and paint a pretty negative story about him. I know enough about Tony to know his life was worth living. Every life is.

I sit and imagine what it must be like for Tony’s Mother and Father and his younger siblings. Almost three weeks ago they got a call that their Tony was shot and killed. Their Tony.
If only he weren’t dead.
If only he would have sustained injuries and lived.
If only he were still alive.
I can’t imagine their world as they must be experiencing it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my child.

My heart hurts for everyone. This is not about one side or the other. It’s about a system that needs to change. I don’t think people become cops so they can shoot and kill people. I imagine Officer Kenny will struggle with the thoughts of Tony’s family and how they are forever devastated by their loss. I imagine he wishes Tony Robinson were alive today, not because it would make his life easier, but because he really didn’t want him to die.

This is a quote from the article about Officer Kenny that sticks out and makes my stomach turn. My heart starts racing.

“I honestly don’t think he [Officer Kenny] sees race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation,” said Armagost.

I can’t stop wondering how different that call would have been if Officer Kenny would have arrived on Langdon Street where a White frat boy was tripping on mushrooms. Would there be a lost life, a funeral?

We see race gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We see it. Identity is portrayed and marketed everywhere we go, everywhere we turn. That doesn’t make us bad. It just is.

We are racial beings, we are our gender even when society doesn’t accept the gender we feel vs. the gender we were born with, we reflect our ethnic and cultural heritages, visible and invisible, and we are sexual beings.  We see them and us and we have biases about all that we see.

To pretend we don’t experience biases is a problem. We simply can’t move forward until we acknowledge it.  Some of our biases are not serving our higher good or the highest good of our community.

This is an excerpt from a letter written by Annette Miller to Madison Police Chief Koval:

Many are trying to individualize the situation and the circumstance. This is about a system that will not own up to its addiction. Just like an alcoholic– admission of the problem is key, then rehabilitation, and support to make the lifelong changes to stay clean and not regress. The police department as a system needs to own its history, its bias, privilege, and most importantly the institutionalized and structural racism. And, the significant impact that racial inequity has had on African Americans and other people of color….

But wait, the Madison Police Department has acknowledged the power of unconscious biases and the impacts of them. On January 24th, 2010, Interim Chief Gaber wrote the following:

One initiative that our Department started in 2010 was the development of the Unconscious Bias Group and their development of a training called “Judgment Under the Radar.” The training is intended to show how biases can create an impediment to how members of our Department interact with people and how, with a deeper understanding of these issues, we can work with the community to abate them.

Conversations and trainings are necessary but not sufficient. It is not sufficient to just attend training sessions and bring greater awareness. We need more than this. And we need it now.

Biases can be changed. Change within the system can happen. Racial equity is one of the only societal issues that “require” a conversation because people are so uncomfortable. Any other issue that a community is faced with is addressed with action items, strategy, timelines for change, accountability and implementation of consequences. I don’t know about you but planning funerals makes me way more uncomfortable than talking about my biases and racial disparities.

Conversations are necessary but they are not sufficient.

What if the Police Department implemented systems to measure, assess and test biases? What if training was mandatory for everyone and ongoing with the goal of changing biases?

So what happens now? We wait on the report of this incident. This one incident. Why does this incident matter to make these changes? It is clear that our community has changed (Race to Equity Report) and the system needs to change with it.

I hear people (mostly White people) say they are tired of the race card being played. They say Officer Kenny was following the rules and doing his job. Did Officer Kenny follow all the rules? I don’t know. What if he did? What if he followed all the rules and did the best he could do? What if there was a bias that because Tony Robinson was Black he posed more of a threat? That bias could come from the media, his experience or any other belief that we are surrounded with or trained to believe through work, play, home, society and in our culture. What if? We still lost a life.

If we are listening we can hear that the parents of children of color are living in fear every single day. They are tired of this race thing too. Sick, tired and many are devastated.

I am asking for better. Not perfect, just better. Please show us we can do better and not with more conversation. It is our responsibility to check our biases and commit to changing them. Learn about them, notice them, and insist that the biases that aren’t serving the highest good of our community be changed.

Si se puede.

(please join me and the Step Up Book Club as we are currently reading the book, Everyday Bias by Howard J. Ross. We meet the third Tuesday of every month at the Goodman Public Library on Park Street from 6-7:30pm) 

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