I was staying in Florida in August 2014 when everything kicked off in Ferguson, Missouri. This was a town that most people had never heard of until Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an African American. Now the town of Ferguson was all over the news channels as protesters clashed with a militarised police force.

Because this wasn’t an isolated incident. All evidence pointed towards a growing trend of police brutality against black men. This incident simply perpetuated the belief that the entire American police force was racist.

Of course the American police force is racist. Because everyone else is.

And – yes – of course the American police force is racist. Because everyone else is. Along with being sexist, ageist, fat-ist, ableist and lots of other ‘ist’s besides. It’s just that police prejudice is more visible because it leads to more tragic consequences. If your local grocery store suffers from the same level of bias no one dies.

There was a phrase that was used a lot in the media at the time – that there were just “a few bad apples”. But that was a pretty misguided and unhelpful assessment of the situation. Institutional racism was the problem – systems and cultures that enabled bias. And that’s something that police forces have been addressing in the last couple of years.

Many businesses need to address racism too

Judging from shocking corporate behaviour, like the white JCPenney employee who put a black customer in a headlock after telling them they didn’t belong there, many businesses need to address racism too.

There’s a lot these corporations can learn from the way American police forces have been handling their prejudice problem. This article takes a look at their approaches to point out the actions other medium and large organisations can (and should) take.

Expose the problem

The problem with prejudice is that most people just don’t believe they have a problem. They think other people are prejudiced and that the real problem lies with the hood-wearing rednecks who still believe in lynchings. But it’s the more subtle prejudice that often causes the most harm.

It’s the more subtle prejudice that often causes the most harm

So one of the things police forces are doing is getting officers to take an Implicit Association Test to reveal their hidden biases. Because no one wants to take medicine for a disease they don’t believe they have. The test for racial bias shows you pictures of black faces and white faces alongside positive words and negative words and measures your response times. It uses small differences in reaction times to reveal how closely you associate positive and negative sentiments with skin colour.

One of the surprising things it’s revealed is that black people aren’t immune from having a pro-white bias. Only 18% of users who’ve done the test showed no measurable bias. And 51% show a strong or moderate bias towards white faces. You may find that shocking. But don’t judge anyone until you’ve tried the test yourself. Which you can do right here:

Get the leaders to talk about it

The issue of police discrimination was talked about by the President (the previous one, of course) and senior members of the police force. They acknowledged that it was a problem and took action to address it. Obama even commissioned a task force for 21st century policing to develop recommendations. The message was clear – the people in charge believe this issue is important enough for them to spend time on. So you should too.

It often feels like another meddling mandate from HR

When businesses look at diversity it often feels like another meddling mandate from HR rather than something that anyone really believes in. It elicits eye-rolls and mutterings of ‘pointless PC crap’ from the workforce. People just don’t see the problem or think it’s important to the future of the company.

That’s because the leadership haven’t got involved, told people why addressing the issue is important and how they expect people to act. When it’s a company-wide mission that’s delivered with passion, people get behind it. When it isn’t, it becomes a reluctant must-do.

Build bridges

For years the police had drifted away from traditional community policing, where they would walk the streets and get to know the people in their care, to a more militarised and dehumanising form of policing. Following the troubles, they needed to rebuild their relationships with the communities they were paid to protect. So many police departments made efforts to open a dialogue with the people in their neighbourhood.

Talking is a great healer

If your organisation is particularly lacking in diversity, it’s a good idea to make a public statement by building relationships with the very people you need to attract. Get to know them. Ask them what would make them want to work for you. Listen to criticism and own the fact that you’ve not done enough up until now. And give them commitments to reach reasonable targets. Talking is a great healer.

If you refuse to address the entrenched prejudice in your organisation, you don’t deserve good ideasClick To Tweet

Create policies

Many US police forces have created policies to ensure behaviour change. Many now don’t allow race to be used as a reason to stop a vehicle (I know! That was actually allowed before?). Many have created a process for when an officer is found to have acted in a biased way. It’s all about spotting problems and addressing them to reduce the chances of biased policing.

But I don’t think this is about creating rules and laws to enforce behaviour. If you’re leading by example and you’ve expressed the importance of addressing entrenched prejudice, I believe you should trust employees to act in the right way. But have a system for discovering when behaviour has not been up to standard and have processes for dealing with that scenario. Otherwise, your regulations will lead to a passionless and resentful adherence to the system.

Positive action is better than inaction

So will these measures eliminate racism within American police forces? Nope. But will they help to improve the situation? Hell yes! Positive action is better than inaction. And that applies to every organisation. And to every form of prejudice that is harboured in the workforce.

This site is focused on helping people and organisations have better and more effective ideas. But if you refuse to address the entrenched prejudice in your organisation, you don’t deserve good ideas. Which is appropriate because you’ll also have less chance of having them.

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I was staying in Florida in August 2014 when everything kicked off in Ferguson, Missouri. This was a town that most people had never heard of until Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an African American. Now the town of Ferguson was all over the news channels...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at OpenForIdeas.org
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.