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Shelia Stubbs, Dane County board supervisor, speaks during a meeting at the Urban League of Greater Madison in 2014. Board chair Sharon Corrigan is at left.

The presenters were confident that everyone who showed up for Thursday night’s “Community Conversation on Race and Criminal Justice,” doesn’t want to behave in biased ways.

Unfortunately, they said, good intentions don't prevent biased behavior.

But they offered two strategies that can help: awareness of biases and cross-race relationships.

The event, hosted by the Dane County Board of Supervisors, started with a lecture about bias and was followed by a conversation about local police conduct. It’s part of the county’s larger effort to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and was the first county-sponsored community event focused on implicit bias.

“To move beyond how we respond in the implicit biases, we need to understand them, and then we need to be able to have that conversation across our racial lines,” said Sharon Corrigan, chair of the Dane County Board.

The Perception Institute, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that uses research to help organization reduce bias and discrimination, kicked off the evening with bias education.

The institute tries to “bring about what we know about how our brains work ... to help bring us forward,” said Rachel D. Godsil, director of research at the Perception Institute.

William Snowden, a felony trial attorney, defined implicit bias as “the brain’s automatic instant association of stereotypes or attitudes toward particular groups, without our conscious awareness.” Or, more colloquially: “Sometimes we do things without really knowing why we do them.”

It’s important to be aware of our biases, Snowden said. He encouraged everyone to take an implicit association test, available online. Snowden, who is African-American and became a public defender because he said he believes “they’re locking up too many black people,” took an implicit bias test and found that he associates darker-skinned African-Americans with criminality.

That's uncomfortable, he said, and unfortunately, implicit bias is not reduced by good intentions, someone telling you to reduce your bias or avoiding people from other groups.

Also unfortunately, bias is increased by stress, time pressure, multi tasking, ambiguous or incomplete info or lack of familiarity with groups.

Social psychology has shown that the only way to reduce implicit biases in a lasting way, Godsil said, is to have “authentic peer-to-peer relationships” between different races and ethnicities.

“We have to break bread together, we have to respect each other as humans,” Godsil said.

The second part of the evening included a skit about an interaction with the police. Audience members shared their subsequent thoughts and concerns.

“That’s scary,” a white woman said upon learning that reasonable suspicion is enough to detain someone.

Others asked Madison police officers about cultural competency training or what happens when an innocent suspect walks away from an officer. Some voiced concerns that police don’t have personal relationships with residents living in neighborhood or that certain neighborhoods are subject to excessive police surveillance

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Jared Prado, a Madison police officer in attendance, said he welcomed the feedback and the purpose of the event.

“I think having a very basic training and presentation on implicit bias is great, because it gets people all on the same page of terminology, and it’s really from that point that we can hear from the community what we can be doing better,” he said.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney was also grateful for the event.

“The more the community learns about implicit bias, the more we build trust in our community among each other,” he said. “One of the most striking statements that was made this evening was, ‘the best way to address implicit bias is to get to know your neighbors’ ... There needs to be more of that.”

It’s also good for elected officials to hear feedback on these topics, Corrigan said.

“I appreciate the honesty of the audience," she said. "I’m really pleased to see the turnout tonight for this, that we have a lot of people of color and a lot of people where white coming together to learn about this."

This is one of several county efforts to reduce incarceration rates, like community restorative court and pretrial solutions, Dane County Supervisor Shelia Stubbs wrote in a recent op-ed for the Cap Times. 

Dane County also experiences significant racial disparities many areas including infant mortality, life expectancy, education, employment and poverty.

“This (event) is kind of the start of the conversation,” said Colleen Clark-Bernhardt, equity and criminal justice council coordinator for the Dane County board of supervisors. “We’re hoping that we can do more in the future.”