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Humboldt County jail holds cultural, identity bias training for first time

[article by Will Houston, Eureka Times-Standard]

In an effort to improve law enforcement’s relationship with the community, Humboldt County jail staff today underwent training to recognize and prevent bias and to boost cultural awareness, according to sheriff’s office public information specialist Samantha Karges.

[article by Will Houston, Eureka Times-Standard]

In an effort to improve law enforcement’s relationship with the community, Humboldt County jail staff today underwent training to recognize and prevent bias and to boost cultural awareness, according to sheriff’s office public information specialist Samantha Karges.

sheriff’s office’s programs coordinator Vanessa Vrtiak said the training was not prompted by any incident of bias by sheriff’s office staff, but was rather a proactive step to prevent it from occurring. Vrtiak said there is a need to bridge a gap between law enforcement and the communities it serves, especially in the context of the nationwide attention on police shootings, discrimination and misconduct. 

“There are all these tragic stories about people of color that are being killed by police officers and the trust truly has been broken,” Vrtiak said. “And whatever we can do to try and rebuild that trust — I mean if it’s a training like this and hopefully in the future it will be more things we can do — but this is kind of just the start.”

 Vrtiak said the training is also important for building cultural awareness, especially because the jail has a high number of Native American inmates.

Humboldt County Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano said that his probation officers and sheriff’s office jail staff are not required to undergo bias and cultural diversity training like police officers and sheriff’s deputies. However, Damiano said this cultural awareness and bias training has still been held every year in his 29 years with the department.

Damiano said training is only as effective as its ability to be used in real-life situations. Damiano said local tribes and other ethnic groups have unique experiences when dealing with law enforcement agencies, and therefore more dialogue is needed to truly address any biases that exist.

“Until we had those conversations, it didn’t matter what kind of training I had,” Damiano said.


Gathered in the jail briefing room today, a group of about 15 county jail personnel listened to and at times debated the issues of bias with the two instructors: Humboldt Area Foundation Leadership Program Manager and Equity Alliance of the North Coast member Ronald White and Humboldt State University professor of sociology Jennifer Eichstedt.

Eichstedt said they interviewed some of the jail staff prior to the training session about their views on bias, whether it is intentional or an unconscious bias. Many of those they interviewed did not believe they were acting with bias, Eichstedt said, and staff expressed during the training session that they treat all the inmates the same.

“It’s hard to believe when you consciously feel that you’re really, really committed to fairness to also think that you could be acting on biases,” Eichstedt said. “It’s a very disturbing notion because it really challenges your sense of yourself as fair, and nobody likes that. We all really want to see ourselves as fair people.”

At the training, Eichstedt and White would ask correctional staff to talk about what makes them proud about their own identity and whether their identity makes work difficult in any way. Some staff expressed how inmates who were being reprimanded for behavior would pull out a “race card” and ask whether they are being targeted because they are of a certain race.

Some jail staff debated the effectiveness of one exercise where groups were asked to identity positive characteristics about certain races and identities. Some jail staff questioned why some groups were not included in the discussion. Other jail staff questioned whether they were stereotyping these groups even if it was for positive reasons. White said the goal of the exercise was to provide a counter to the negative stereotypes that they may hold.

White said the training is only the beginning step to recognizing that bias is “something that is part of all us.”

“How we begin to approach it and deal with it helps us actually perform our jobs better and helps us in our social interactions,” White said. “Specifically, we’re going to be going through some de-biasing techniques and encouraging them to think through on how to be more conscious and look at the biases that they have.”

White said that after knowledge comes implementation.

“The ultimate goal is for the institution to begin to ask the right kinds of questions about inequities that might occur in our system and put together a plan of action to address them,” White said.

The sheriff’s office is set to hold four more training sessions for jail staff Jan. 3 and Jan. 12.


California prohibits racial or identity profiling and requires a state commission to provide guidelines and review how state and local law enforcement agencies are trained to prevent bias. 

The state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015 created a board to investigate how state and local agencies address profiling and bias. The act also requires agencies to submit data to the Department of Justice on all stops — meaning any detention or search — they make in the coming years.

The law also requires law enforcement to collect data on citizen complaints about racial or identity profiling.

The Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board released its first annual report Dec. 29, providing an overview of the new requirements and survey data about how law enforcement agencies are addressing profiling and complaints about profiling.

Fortuna Police Chief Bill Dobberstein said they are gearing up for the new requirements, with his department and others in the county having to submit data starting in 2023.

Dobberstein said his officers and peace officers throughout the state are already required to undergo at least two hours of bias training every two years. Bias training is also included as part of a three-day training program at College of the Redwoods Police Academy, Dobberstein said.

Dobberstein said he believes the current training program is effective and that they have received no complaints about identity profiling.

“That would be handled very swiftly internally in the department,” Dobberstein said.

Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson said that Patrol Sgt. Ed Wilson and Field Training Officer Corrie Watson attended a three-day training session in November at the California State University Long Beach Center for Criminal Justice.

“They are currently creating an in-house training workshop for our entire department and will be presenting this early this year,” Watson wrote in an email to the Times-Standard.

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