District attorney’s office completes training in spotting, preventing biases that may creep into its work

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson is pictured in this Journal-World file photo from May 2018.

When you see that someone is always late to important events — work, doctor’s appointments, court-ordered appearances — you may become worried that person doesn’t understand responsibility.

When you are a criminal prosecutor, that worry may cause you to recommend a certain bond amount for a defendant or influence any number of other choices about what type, if any, plea deal you are going to offer the accused.

But maybe that person’s tardy ways have nothing to do with responsibility and everything to do with cultural differences. Some cultures view time in a circular fashion, while mainstream America more often views it in a straight line.

That lack of understanding is an example of an “unconscious bias,” and if you are a prosecutor you ought to have less of those biases, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said.

The Douglas County District Attorney’s office recently completed its first year of staff training to recognize and prevent unconscious biases in its work. Branson said the training, which was given to all the department’s approximately 40 employees over several months, was eye-opening for him.

“We don’t do much to challenge our assumptions,” Branson said of his takeaways from the training. “When we are reading a police report or interviewing people, what are we doing to challenge our assumptions? A lot of times they are little assumptions, but if you string enough little assumptions together, they become a big assumption.”

Loretta Summers, president of Summers Advisory group and facilitator for the D.A. training, offered the example of cultural differences in time. She said other common unconscious biases include making small assumptions based on where people live, their income levels, or even how a person communicates.

“These type of biases are very subtle,” Summers said. “They show up as micro-inequities. It might be that an attorney doesn’t say hello to me, but says hello to the person sitting right next to me. Why didn’t he say hello to me?”

Branson said he began to think about providing the training to his staff after watching the Lawrence Police Department, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and other area law enforcement agencies prepare for a contact study that will measure how often law enforcement officers come into contact with minorities and what the results are of those contacts.

Branson said he initially didn’t think that effort involved his office much, since it is focused on traffic stops and other instances where a police officer initiates contact with a subject. But Branson said he began to think differently as he provided a tour of his department to a member of a county board that is studying criminal justice, incarceration practices and other topics related to equity in the judicial system.

The member of that board asked Branson whether he he ever took the race or ethnicity of a defendant into account when he was dealing with cases? Branson said he, of course, did not. He was a bit offended that such a question even needed to be asked. But the board member was a bit offended that Branson didn’t take those factors into consideration, he said.

Upon further discussion, Branson learned that the board member wasn’t asking whether he treated people more harshly or leniently based on race or ethnicity, but rather was trying to determine if he understands how the world is different for people of different races and backgrounds.

“That really got me to thinking about what does it mean when people say they are colorblind?” Branson said. “You think that is a good thing, but it is not.”

Branson said he thinks the training will help his staff members better self-challenge their assumptions. Summers said that type of awareness is what she hopes for when she provides such training sessions around the country. She said there are certain segments of the population that spend very little time thinking about the differences that exist in society.

“What does it mean to be white in America?” Summers asked. “I ask people that and they just sit there and look at me. If you ask a black person what it means to be black in America, they can rattle off a lot of things. Latinos can rattle off a lot of things. People who aren’t in the dominant culture think about it a lot. But if you are in the dominant culture, you rarely ever think about it.”

The training cost $6,000 to provide, and the D.A.’s office used money in its drug forfeiture account to fund the training, a spokeswoman for the office said. The training began in February and ran periodically through last week. Employees attended in shifts, so to speak, to ensure the DA’s office was staffed throughout the training.


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