On Wednesday, March 1, Dr. Jeff Kukucka presented a multicultural workshop on racial and cognitive bias present in the forensic sciences at Towson University.
The presentation was one of many managed by Dr. Danice Brown as a part of her Multiculturalism in Action Brown Bag Series. The series provides a place for Towson faculty to showcase their research from across multiple disciplines that focus on social justice or multicultural topics.
“The Towson University 2020 Strategic Plan set forth goals related to making Towson a national model of diversity including ‘provide a safe, inclusive, welcoming and peaceful community respectful to all’,” Brown explained. “This brown bag is an initiative that supports that goal.”
Brown wanted to accomplish a few goals with her series. Mainly, she wanted to create a safe space for faculty, students, and staff to be able to learn and grow from each other. A secondary goal was to connect faculty from across campus and various departments to educate each other about research from outside their own disciplines.
“I have met faculty from various departments that I’m not sure I would have had they not attended the talks,” Brown said.
Ever since student activists planned a sit-in in Fall of 2015, Towson has worked to meet increasing demands regarding the safety and inclusivity of the campus with its 2020 Strategic Plan. Brown wants to ensure students know that this is being taken seriously.
“A final goal of the brown bags was to expose students to the vast array of multicultural research taking place on Towson’s campus,” Brown stated. “The message is that Towson is a place where this type of research is taking place and research examining issues of diversity is valued on this campus.”
Students of Towson can confirm that the university is making a visible effort.
“It’s events like this that spread knowledge across the campus,” Brianna Chambers, a psychology major in attendance, noted. “The sit-in changed everything.”
Kukucka, the presenter at Brown’s session that I attended, began his career as an eyewitness memory researcher. Beginning in as an undergrad, he was always intrigued by eyewitness memory recall, why eyewitness’ make mistakes, and what to do about it.
“I heard so many of these stories about innocent people going to prison, often times for 5, 10, 20 years, for something that they didn’t do,” Kukucka explained. “And I really wanted to be part of the solution to that problem.”
Kukucka’s point is that most of those wrongfully convicted of crimes were not white. He believes that a cognitive bias is present in the forensic sciences, based on the way evidence is presented.
“We wanted to see how other extraneous irrelevant information might influence the judgements that [the victims] made,” Kukucka detailed. “Usually, if you hear that a suspect confessed, you’re going to infer that that suspect is guilty. And if you come into the analysis with the preexisting belief that the suspect is guilty, that belief might actually color how you see the evidence.”
Kukucka has conducted extensive research on this subject over the years which he presented at the event. It’s proven that when facts are presented under different circumstances, variation in judgement begins to occur. Based on his 2014 survey, 71% of 403 forensic examiners from 21 different countries agree that bias is an issue in their field.
He and his colleagues have also studied variables such as response time, confidence of answer, and how the race of suspect impact decisions.
“I’ve been really lucky to not only meet a lot of those exonerees, but work directly with police officers, forensic scientists, lawyers, [and] judges,” Kukucka said. “To make sure that they are aware of these problems and that we’re all on the same page in terms of how we can fix them.”
The only real way to solve this issue, Kukucka says, is a complete revamp of the system. He emphasizes that the criminal justice system is ran by humans, who inherently make mistakes and hold an invisible bias.
“Judges, juries, police officers, suspects – they’re all human.” Kukucka stated.
In the meantime, Kukucka urges more interaction between disciplines.
“We need more dialogue between psychologists and forensic professionals,” Kukucka detailed. “We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to prevent the potential for bias by restricting the causes of bias, such as, exposure to biased information and other aspects of the procedure.”
The next talk in Brown’s series takes place on April 19 and discusses intergroup dialogue and how to increase empathy and understanding across different social identities. It takes place in Towson’s College of Liberal Arts, Room 4150.