BY JACOB STEINBERG
Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau
Maryland legislators introduced a pair of bills that could mandate police, judges, state’s attorneys and public defenders undergo implicit bias training in order to recognize and counteract any potential biases they may carry against specific groups.
Implicit bias is the attitudes, or stereotypes that may unconsciously affect someone’s actions and decisions toward a person or group of people.
“I think we can all agree that anyone with a strong recognizable bias against a certain group, might not be the best protector of that group,” Del. Melissa Wells, D-Baltimore said at a Tuesday House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Both HB0194 and HB0413, with Wells as the sponsor, aim to reduce the potential risk of bias for minorities and marginalized groups when interacting with members of the judicial system.
HB0413 stipulates that each appellate, circuit court and district court judge undergo testing and training on implicit bias as early as possible after assuming office, according to a state legislative analysis.
This legislation aims to mitigate the potential biases judges may have, including when sentencing people of different races.
“Having a judge realize and understand their bias could change the decades-long systemic failure that is the harsh difference in sentencing Black and white people,” Wells said at a Jan. 27 House Judiciary Committee hearing.
HB0194 proposes the same criteria — that police officers and public defenders receive implicit bias training and testing before beginning service, with an added amendment that the policy also apply to state’s attorneys.
“An officer’s duty is to protect, a public defender’s duty is to represent, and a state’s attorneys duty is to enforce laws and adjust in an unbiased manner,” Wells said at the hearing.
“By simply being able to identify potential unconscious biases the system can better serve the people they swore to protect,” Wells added.
The Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission would be responsible for overseeing a curriculum that includes an implicit bias test and training to address it for all entrance-level police schools at the state, county and municipal levels, according to a legislative analysis.
Diminishing implicit bias within policing was one of 12 major recommendations that came out of the Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland Workgroup, which focused on minimizing police misconduct as well as increasing accountability and transparency in policing.
That group convened from June to September 2020 and was chaired by Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard.
It included bi-partisan membership from 14 different delegates representing 12 different jurisdictions throughout the state.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, D, signed similar legislation in August, which requires the Department of Law and Public Safety to add implicit bias training to their curriculum for law enforcement officers.
Similarly, the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety conducted a study in 2020 measuring the impacts of implicit bias awareness training in the New York Police Department.
That study found that after taking part in the training officers were better able to recognize the concept of implicit bias and make an effort to combat it.
Proponents explained that testing and training for implicit bias is essential to ensure that marginalized people such as those who have a disability or speak a different language are treated fairly within the judicial system.
“We believe that implicit bias is something that everyone has,” Cecilia Plante co-chair of the Maryland Legislative Coalition, said at the Tuesday hearing.
“It affects how we deal with people; it affects our level of patience and our capacity for empathy, all of which are required when dealing with the public,” Plante added.
Natasha M. Dartigue, the deputy district public defender for Baltimore City testified in support of both pieces of legislation.
Dartigue has extensive experience with implicit bias training, teaching a course on it since 2017 as part of new employee training.
The training typically lasts for 90 minutes and was modeled after training from the American Bar Association, according to Dartigue.
It includes an explanation and understanding of implicit bias as well as techniques to decrease any potential biases.
“From my experience there’s definitely a level of understanding that comes from the class, a self-awareness,” Dartigue told Capital News Service.
“It will assist you in taking affirmative steps in changing your behavior,” Dartigue added.
No one provided oral testimony in opposition of HB0193 at its hearing on Jan. 27.
However, Stephen Kroll, executive director for the Maryland State’s Attorneys Association expressed opposition to HB0194 citing that the inclusion of the state’s attorney in the bill came as a surprise and that he’d need permission from the board to provide funding for the evaluation of the implicit bias training.
Wells explained that she was adding an amendment to remove the evaluation aspect of the training.
Neither bill has been scheduled for a voting session yet.