Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash
Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

Peter Williams: Do you know what unconscious bias is?

Opinion 03/06/2021

OPINION: Unconscious bias - what is it? Do you have it? How can somebody else possibly know you have it, tell you that you exhibit it and therefore get you to change your behaviour? 

If you’re unconscious, you’re not aware of what you’re doing and therefore you can’t be responsible for your actions. But under this definition or description of bias, you can be conscious but show unconscious bias because you don’t know you’re biased. Confused? I think I am. Isn’t it a very long bow to draw? 

Can someone else really tell you what you’re thinking deep in your own mind, particularly in matters of race? Is this so-called unconscious bias, that you don’t know you have but somebody else has decided you do have, the ultimate control over your mind that is every Marxist’s wet dream? 

So now we have the Police Commissioner telling the world the New Zealand police show unconscious bias in their day to day dealings with the community? By that does he mean that police apprehend more Maori than non-Maori? Does he mean that police are unconsciously biased against Maori and therefore unconsciously racist? He doesn’t actually come out and say that, but he says police are unconsciously biased. Isn’t that a broad generalisation? 

If police are biased, I’d say they’re biased against suspected criminal activity, no matter who is perpetrating it. And you know what, I’m more than happy for the police to be absolutely biased against crooks, against those who steal stuff and bash people up.  

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says that police should wear body cameras so that they won’t display unconscious bias when arresting people. Frankly, I think police wearing body cams is a really good idea. But I have real doubts as to whether it will stop bias, conscious or unconscious. 

It will show the number of absolute idiots, louts and dangerous people in the community that police have to deal with on an hourly basis and the amount of provocation that police face when confronted with a dangerous situation. Like mad lycra-clad cyclists causing mayhem on the Auckland Harbour bridge. 

If the body cams have an audio feed as well, they will provide so much extra evidence so that when a prosecution comes to court, the circumstances of an alleged crime will be much easier to ascertain. But will the wearing of a body cam actually make a difference to a police officer’s actions in an incident? Surely they are trained to approach an incident appropriately. 

No, they do not get it right every time. That’s why there is the IPCA to act as a watchdog on their actions. But if the video is running when police attend an incident, the evidence about the behaviours of everybody present is there for all to see. 

How can anybody else say if you have an unconscious bias? How can others ever know what you think unless you tell them?  Isn’t it fanciful on the part of the police commissioner to say that everybody has unconscious bias and that his staff do too? But are you consciously biased against any particular group? I’m happy to say I am. I’m biased against left-wingers, against climate activist zealots who think the world is ending, against people who play loud music, and people who are lazy and don’t take personal responsibility. But am I biased against people on the basis of their ethnicity or skin colour? No way and I’m offended that anybody would think I am. 

And what about the use of body cams as part of a police uniform? Is there any downside to this? Sure when it comes to presenting video evidence in court, faces will have to be blurred, especially if there are children present at the scene. But that shouldn’t be a problem, should it? However, if the Race Relations Commissioner wants body cams to be used to stop bias against Maori I think he’s dreaming. 

Police will see what is there and the body cameras will capture it. Most importantly they will capture the provocation that police suffer every day. A video record of what goes on during a police officer’s shift might just shed some light on the underbelly of society that police have to deal with on an hourly basis. 

But in terms of stopping unconscious bias, it won’t help. Conscious bias maybe, but not the other, because how can you possibly know if you’re unconsciously biased, and what right does anybody else have to tell you that you have it?

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