Originally published on May 10, 2021 in the MV Times.

By Brian Dowd and Eunki Seonwoo

Three-day course featured rank-focused classes and community, organization involvement.

Island police completed a three-day training session on implicit and unconscious bias last week.

The training was conducted at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School by Hillard Heintze, a security risk-management firm based in Chicago.

The Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition received a $25,000 grant to fully fund the training sessions, which were prompted by the recent spate of tragic African American killings during police procedures across the country.

The grant comprised $17,000 from the Martha’s Vineyard Community Foundation, $7,000 from the Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation, and $1,000 from the Social Action Committee of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP, and members of Black Lives Matter were also involved in the classes.

The training was broken down into three areas of instruction: patrol officers, sergeants, and police chiefs and lieutenants.

Each class discussed bias in policing through conversation, scenarios, and introspection to give Island police a look at how they are viewed by the public. For patrol officers, the training focused on their interactions with the public at situations such as traffic stops and arrests, for sergeants it focused on supervision, and for police chiefs and lieutenants, it had components of the other classes but included a two-hour discussion with stakeholders from the organizations that help put the training together.

Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee said any one of the Island’s police departments could have done the training, but that all police departments joined to have a consistent baseline across the Vineyard.

“We don’t have any commuters,” McNamee said of the police officers. “Everybody here who wears a uniform is a close part of the Island community. Whether they’re coaching or volunteering, they do a lot outside the scope of their police role.

“It was impassioned, and it was an opportunity for us to hear people outside of our traditional roles.”

Tisbury Police Chief Mark Saloio said once officers became comfortable, the conversation on race and bias opened up. “Many of the topics covered did not pertain to a specific race or culture. Most of the topics that were covered just pertained to general awareness and general approachability, regardless of who you were dealing with,” Saloio said. “So I thought there was a lot of value in that, and at the end of my experience, speaking for me personally, it just reinforced that all of us, regardless of our race, of our culture, we all want the same thing. We want to be safe, we all want to be treated respectably, and we all want to be free. And really, it was just yet another reinforcement that we all have far more in common than we do not.”

Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain said this is not the end of bias training for Island police.

“It made us think about our biases, and think about the people that we are and how we can tackle those challenges,” he said in part.

West Tisbury Police Chief Matt Mincone said the community listening session was particularly important, and he has pushed for changes such as having complaint forms for officers easily accessible on department websites. In the example of a traffic stop, Mincone said it was important for officers to introduce themselves and state why they’re pulling someone over, as opposed to just asking for license and registration.

“I think how it was explained was, ‘It’s an uncomfortable topic,’ and we on Martha’s Vineyard have stepped into it knowing that we have to be a part of listening and understanding the concerns that are out there, and however best we can make that fit for our own community, to make those changes. Whether they’re subtle, or over a period of time, they need to be solidified and stay,” he said.

Chilmark Police Chief Jonathan Klaren said he’d like to continue seeing community members and police regularly meet. “Maybe not the exact same curriculum, but to build off of it and continue the dialogue that opened up with the community. I thought it was a good opportunity, and I’d like to see whether we can get it together again in the fall. That wouldn’t necessarily require having a company come down and train us. It would just be a matter of getting people in a room together,” he said.

Tisbury Det. Bill Brigham enjoyed the training, and felt a lot of forethought from the Island’s police chiefs went into it. “They’re kind of keeping us ahead of the curve. It’s always good to get training,” Brigham said. “They want to make sure we have all the knowledge and education we need to make sure we’re dealing with people in a sensitive type of way, opening people’s eyes on how different people and cultures view the police, and we need to take that into account when we’re dealing with people.”

Brigham, who is also the department’s civil rights officer, said it was important for police to understand how they are viewed by the community to better interact with them and have a more positive outcome. He added that the training was especially important for new recruits.

Edgartown Det. Curtis Chandler said it was important for officers to have implicit and unconscious bias training. “We deal with people in difficult circumstances usually, and anything that can help us get a little perspective on how we think, and trying to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, is important,” he said.

Chandler has also become an instructor for fair and impartial training, which will be offered to new police hires as well as veteran officers. Those classes also cover bias training and how bias is dangerous for both the public and police officers.

“Our biases can be an officer safety issue,” Chandler said. “If you’re not taking a suspect seriously because you feel like they’re safe, or you’re overly aggressive because you’re unfamiliar with a suspect, you’re opening yourself to liability.”

Photo courtesy MV Times/Bruce McNamee