Home Education & Learning Selective Attention: Ideological Bias Evident in the APA 2020 Virtual Conference

Selective Attention: Ideological Bias Evident in the APA 2020 Virtual Conference

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Given the current cultural polarity, few topics may be as unanimously agreed upon as the unanticipated adversity of the 2020 calendar year: a global pandemic with devastating health and financial ramifications, Saharan sandstorms, plagues of locusts, wildfires, police-related deaths and racial protests and rioting, and a contentious presidential election with a disputed outcome top the list.

Secondary to the pandemic, the police-related deaths of Americans such as George Floyd and subsequent activist movements and rioting (with substantial property damage and many victims) took the forefront of social concerns over the summer. With these developments, police departments nationwide came under scrutiny and faced calls for defunding and dismantling (even abolishment). In some cities, such as Seattle, most infamously, police precincts were under direct attacks. In Los Angeles, unsuspecting police officers were shot in their vehicle; later, demonstrators appeared at the hospital chanting threatening slogans while one attempted to storm the facility.

The effects of COVID-19 alone on law enforcement has been substantial. In addition to enforcing new policies, such as mask wearing and stay-at-home orders, many of which are met with resistance and confusion, police officers continue to face frequent and prolonged exposure to and interaction with people due to the nature of close contact job-related tasks.

Likely due to a confluence of the pandemic circumstances and BLM-driven scrutiny of law enforcement, hundreds of officers have initiated early retirement, taken extended leaves of absence, or quit altogether in unprecedented waves throughout 2020. Major cities such as Seattle , Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York City (where officer staffing is down 7%), Philadelphia, Atlanta, Buffalo, and South Florida have seen dramatic declines. Minneapolis mayor, Jacob Frey, reported: ‘On an annual basis we see somewhere in the range of 40 to 45 officers retire or resign. Now, those numbers are well beyond 100. And it does have an impact.’ Other smaller towns have also felt the strain, at times having only one officer on call per shift. Not only has attrition been a challenge but so as recruitment. For example, in Colorado Springs, recruitment has declined 25%, with this pattern replicating across the country with a decline as large as 60%. Remaining police officers have reported concerns such as being insufficiently equipped, undertrained, and otherwise limited by the politicisation of routine policing practices – often unfamiliar to and minimally understood by the public.

Some have suggested that the rioting and critical views of law enforcement has catalysed retirement for officers who were close to that point anyways, particularly given the structure of their benefits (e.g., pensions). Nonetheless, it seems that the escalated attrition across many metropolitan hubs are of concern to local authorities and communities. The ripple effects for decreased policing include increased 911 response times, decreased security for adjunct first responders (e.g., firefighters) let alone the remaining officers on patrol, greater risk of misconduct due to increased stress, burnout, and fatigue, more public complaints associated with lengthened and back-to-back shifts, overall increased crime rates (including homicide rates documented this year, for instance, double the number of homicides in Minneapolis relative to 2019), and further risk to public trust in law enforcement.

The emotional toll on police officers is substantial based on reported testimonies provided by Ron Meuser, Jr, a personal injury attorney in Minneapolis/St Paul, who represents at least 175 officers leaving the force or filing for disability claims – many of whom cite PTSD due to recent civil unrest.

‘One officer said he is in the process of leaving the force after he suffered physical injuries, including cuts and burns, during the days of unrest after Floyd’s killing. While inside the city’s 3rd Precinct building as it was overtaken by protesters and subsequently burned, he recorded video messages to his wife and children because he thought he might not make it out alive. “After that, I wasn’t me anymore,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. He said he had nightmares. He couldn’t sleep. He had panic attacks. In training, he had been taught to listen to his body when arriving on a scene, to pay attention when the hairs stood on the back of his neck. Sitting in his squad car, he constantly felt physically sick and found himself unable to focus, second-guessing every decision. He later was diagnosed with PTSD and is receiving treatment. “I was paranoid. I was anxious. I was depressed,” he said. “This made me into a person who wasn’t good to be a cop.”‘

While many officers are sympathetic to the protestors’ cause and are interested to see certain reforms (e.g., greater demographic reflection of the neighbourhoods they police, strategic use of adjunct services like mental health counsellors), and some policies are reasonable to review (e.g., qualified immunity), tensions arise when law enforcement is simultaneously and monolithically vilified. Police officers are known to contend with higher rates of various mental health concerns, such as depression, sleep disturbance, PTSD, and suicide. Relatively few law enforcement personnel seek mental health services.

Yet, despite these pressing concerns, mental health needs belonging to law enforcement (or even first responders more broadly) was a topic absent from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Virtual 2020 Conference. More specifically, of the 29 live events, none featured law enforcement. By comparison, 6 (20.7%) featured pandemic-related topics, and 9 (31%) covered (explicit) race and gender diversity-related topics, including with this year’s current events in mind. The remaining presentations spanned an array of psychological topics. These presentations are particularly reflective of the APA’s organisational values, as they were selected for special feature, relative to the recorded sessions and poster presentations submitted by a deadline prior to the coronavirus outbreak. 

With that said, of the poster and pre-recorded presentations (e.g., roundtable discussions, invited addresses), 67 featured racial topics (‘colour’, ‘racism’, ‘race’, ‘racist’, or ‘ethnic’, in presentation titles). The scope of comparison was limited to ethnic/race due to its particular relevance to policing during 2020 (historically as well) – thus other aspects of diversity were excluded. A reasonable 15 poster and pre-recorded presentations featured law enforcement topics (‘police’, ‘officer’, and ‘law enforcement’). Yet, of these 15 presentations, only 3 appeared to convey a positive regard or concern for officer well-being.

Why might this be? It is likely that fewer psychologists study law enforcement or first responders, even within the discipline of forensic psychology, relative to those studying ethnicity and race as these relate to a range of psychological topics (e.g., psychological assessment and treatment, organisational psychology, developmental psychology, education, etc.). Perhaps ethnicity/racial issues could be considered annual (vs perennial) in their significance. Perhaps professional psychologists, who by and large are left-of-centre ideologically, may be less interested in study and treatment of law enforcement personnel relative to other groups determined to be needier or more important. For these reasons, APA would have received fewer submissions related to law enforcement. However, one wonders, did the APA search for and solicit live session speakers to address a particularly unique and trying time for law enforcement – a population group subject to seismic duress as a group and at the individual level? The adoption of critical theory and, thus, preference groups (e.g., ethnic/racial and sexual minorities – ‘oppressed’ or ‘marginalised groups’) would suggest that law enforcement belongs to an ‘oppressor’ group and, in turn, would be much less deserving of research and clinical attention by conscious and unconscious proponents of this theory.  One can observe a parallel bias emerge when comparing the collective locus of responsibility attributed in the APA Guidelines for Clinical Practice with Boys and Men vs Girls and Women.

Nonetheless, all groups, and more importantly, the individuals comprising those groups, experience mental health needs warranting meaningful attention and concern from mental health professionals. For law enforcement, this cannot take place in a broader systematic way if not discussed during one of the largest annual professional events. What a lost opportunity.

Likely, the blind spot in the scope of the APA 2020 Conference topics will not be known to the lay population. Nonetheless, the root of professional psychology’s bias has been observable and noted in a range of different contexts, which begs the question about the threat of ideological bias to the credibility of the APA and professional psychology as a whole (see Silander & Tarescavage, 2021*). Fortunately, and to APA’s credit, the 2020 Conference did include a pre-recorded symposium on viewpoint diversity, featuring the Heterodox Academy’s own Jonathan Haidt, among other panellists concerned for the protection and promotion of ideological diversity.

Perhaps if not at the organisational level, how can the mental health professionals and psychologists on the ground make a difference? A myriad of answers to this question exists. I suggest that we maintain as much of an unbiased regard for all our clients as we can, apart from the dictates of our respective ideological value systems. The trust they place in us and the need burdening their shoulders requires this of us. We are ethically obligated to do good and avoid harm, among adherence to other principles and guidelines. We ought to observe our shared humanity and suffering for the sake of humility, respect, and authenticity. Lastly, we can seek to directly care for those who are not otherwise deemed a priority in our professional spheres.

*Silander, N. C. & Tarescavage, A. (in press, 2021). Ideological bias in American Psychological Association Communications: Another threat to the credibility of professional psychology. In. C. L. Frisby, R. E.  Redding, W. T. O’Donohue, & S. O. Lilienfeld (Eds.), Political bias in psychology: Nature, scope, and solutions. Springer.

This article is not intended to discount the reasons for which many feel motivated to call for policing reform (e.g., increased transparency and accountability) but simply point out the room for examination of mental health variables within law enforcement and first responders.

Nina Silander, PsyD is a licensed clinical and rehabilitation psychologist practising in Jacksonville, Florida.

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