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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU Spokane researcher Lois James’ study of police bias helps earn her YWCA recognition as a Woman of Achievement

Lois James, an assistant professor and researcher at Washington State University’s College of Nursing in Spokane, is among the 2018 recipients of the YWCA’s Women of Achievement award. She is seen with the simulator she and her husband invented to train law enforcement personnel in shoot-or-don't-shoot scenarios, on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A 7-year-old Lois James would walk across an ornate iron bridge on the River Seine in Paris looking for her friend, the shoeshiner.

James was a white, upper-class Irish-born girl, and the shoeshiner, a poor, black Parisian man. She thinks now he may have been homeless, but she didn’t know, and her mother didn’t mind. Each day they’d talk, mostly about her improvement in learning French.

“He was so friendly,” she says now, even though she’d never had her shoes shined by him.

James would continue over the bridge on her way to the International School of Paris, where she would greet her best friends. One was Nigerian and one was Indian.

“None of my friends were European or American,” she said. “They were from all over the world.”

James has fond memories of the shoeshiner and her friends who were learning French at the same pace. She remembered them through college, graduate school and during her work as a researcher. She credits their friendship as a reason she’s interested in issues arising from race, she said.

“I think from a very young age, I associated diversity with kindness and positive experience,” she said

Now an assistant professor at Washington State University’s College of Nursing in Spokane, James is researching the effects of implicit racial bias in police officers. A National Geographic magazine cover story in April called “The Race Issue” quoted her and her work, for which she will be honored Oct. 4 with the YWCA’s Women of Achievement award. Eight other women are receiving the honor as well.

Training to end police bias

In a refurbished brick building at WSU Spokane, James walked into her state-of-the-art training simulator and greeted her husband, Steve, as he was setting up lights the device.

In 2016, James and her husband turned the simulator into a business that trains police officers, It’s operated in partnership with WSU Spokane and called CBTSim, short for counter bias training simulator. They’ve used to train train law enforcement in Washington and Oregon, but their sights are set on more states and more officers trained.

They’re training the officers to avoid implicit bias, which is unconscious discrimination. It includes the milliseconds in which an officer makes the decision to shoot a person.

“We tend to find that officers can be more hesitant to shoot black suspects than white suspects, even when they implicitly associate black suspects with increased threat,” Lois James said.

She speculates it’s because of the fear of consequences of shooting a minority, but adds there are many officers who are quicker to shoot black suspects.

“Our training goes far beyond shooting decisions,” she said. “It’s about self-discovery of bias, generally.”

James said she hopes her business will provide an actual solution for promoting public trust of police.

“This is something I can give back,” she said.

Experiencing the simulation

A video projected on the wall shows a woman lying in a sleeping bag in an abandoned warehouse. It’s dark. Her hands are fidgeting, and she’s rolling around and grunting.

It’s a potentially dangerous situation for police, because she reaches under her bag and points a gun at the screen.

In milliseconds the officer in the simulation pulls their gun from its holster and fires at the woman on-screen. In the simulator, pulling the trigger of the gun – which is real but disabled and empty – emits a gunshot noise through the speakers in the room.

A window in the wall behind the subject allows James and her husband to observe the reactions to the intense scenes that play on the wall. After the gunshots, the scene freezes and the screen shows exactly when and where the officer fired the round before getting shot by the woman on the ground.

“It’s basically a ‘choose your own adventure,’” Steve James said. “It gets your heart going a little bit.”

James said most anti-bias training for police happens in the classroom, but CBTSim is a more novel approach.

“Every police officer for the last eight months in the Police Academy in Oregon has gone though this,” Steve James said.

The couple’s business is gaining steam. The National Institute of Justice gave $750,000 to CBTSim last year partly to study body-cam footage from actual police-involved shootings, Lois James said.

Tired nurses

Across the room from her police simulation lab sits two driving simulators. The half spheres stand about 6 feet tall with screens and a wheel on the inside.

As part of a different study, James is looking into the effects of 12-hour-long nurse shifts. The driving simulators will test the dangers of nurses driving home after a such a long shift.

The driving simulators will “replicate their post-shift drive home,” she said.

James is concerned about the nurses’ patients’ well-being, too.

Medical error is the third-leading cause of death, she said, and she wants to see how much of that is because of nurse fatigue.

How well do tired nurses calculate medication doses? How well do they take care of patients near the end of 12-hour-long shifts? These are the questions James is after.

She was awarded $1 million in grants for a study that includes 100 nurses from Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. Part of the study includes outfitting nurses with goggles that monitor eye movements.

When it comes to shift lengths, “nurses have been understudied,” she said. “For surgeons, physicians and pilots, rules and regulations have been in place since the ’80s. There are still no federal regulations on how long a nurse can work.”

James said she’ll have some of the three-year-long study’s results in about a year.

“Nurse fatigue should be on lawmakers’ minds,” she said.