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Suffolk police train cops in Ferguson, Mo., in anti-bias program

Protesters chant "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" as they

Protesters chant "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" as they march in the streets of Clayton, Mo., near the St. Louis County Courthouse on Oct. 10, 2014, during a protest against the Aug. 9, 2014, police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Credit: AP/Charles Rex Arbogast

Four Suffolk County police officers traveled this week to Ferguson, Mo. — a community once roiled by unrest after a police officer fatally shot an unarmed Black man in 2014 — to train cops using the implicit bias program the department developed with the U.S. Justice Department.

The Justice Department and Ferguson officials asked Suffolk police late last year to share its anti-bias program with cops in the St. Louis suburb, which entered into a consent decree with the federal government to reform its police department and courts in 2016, officials said.

"It’s an excellent training and the Department of Justice has selected it as a national model," Suffolk Commissioner Geraldine Hart said last week. "It is something we are very proud of and we are looking forward to sharing it with our colleagues in Ferguson."

A sergeant and three Suffolk police officers left New York for Missouri on Sunday, where they will share the implicit bias training — titled "Tactical Policing with Impartial Perceptions — with Ferguson police officers before returning to Long Island on Thursday.

Suffolk police developed the curriculum with Justice Department officials after entering into a similar agreement with the federal government in 2014 in the wake of the slaying of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant killed by a group of teenagers in Patchogue in 2008.

Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, who helped develop the Suffolk training, said it is important for police officers to understand how bias escalates tensions unnecessarily.

"We all have bias, not just racial bias, and we need to be aware of it," Mention-Lewis said. "Being aware of bias is just the first step. This training won’t move the needle — but it will let you know there is a needle."

The Justice Department’s latest report on Suffolk’s compliance with the 2014 settlement, issued in December 2019, said the department is in substantial compliance with most of the agreement’s requirements but has work to do in some areas, including bias-free policing.

"We found SCPD in substantial compliance with this requirement in our last assessment report, as the training SCPD now provides is thorough and clear, and it provides officers with an in-depth understanding of the psychological and situational factors that can result in bias influencing law enforcement outcomes, and the techniques that officers should use to prevent this from happening," Justice Department officials wrote in the report.

"If the training remains substantively equivalent to our last observations, SCPD is poised to come into substantial compliance with this provision once it delivers this training to all SCPD officers," the report said.

The Justice Department’s agreement with Ferguson police called for the department to provide implicit bias training to its officers, according to Nicolle Barton, the Ferguson police department’s consent decree coordinator. Ferguson does not have its own police academy.

The 31-officer department — down from 43 just a few years ago because of retirements — sends recruits to the St. Louis police academy, Barton said, but that academy does not focus as deeply on implicit bias as the Justice Department required of Ferguson. Justice Department officials suggested Ferguson look at the program Suffolk police developed in 2018 with federal assistance

"I looked into what other departments were doing and we decided the Suffolk program would be a good fit for us," Barton said.

Mention-Lewis said Suffolk officials developed its curriculum by reviewing academic studies and other departments’ anti-bias programs, and incorporating what worked elsewhere. Officials also used feedback from Suffolk residents and community organizations to sharpen the program.

Barton said that community input was important to Ferguson officials.

"I think that is what drove me to the Suffolk police department," Barton said. "I am passionate about engaging the community and I think that is the goal for us."

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