Newton officer switching gears with research into law enforcement motivations, biases in decision-making

05/28/2013 7:01 AM

05/28/2013 7:01 AM

The traffic stop that defined Det. Brad Celestin’s career on the Newton Police Department started innocently enough.

Here’s how the Wichita native’s boss, Newton Police Chief Jim Daily, remembers it:

“We had just received our Tasers, and there was an individual, a female, who was failing to comply with Brad’s request to leave her cellphone alone and leave her car,” Daily said. “After the final command, Brad ended up having to tase this young lady.

“But because his personality is such, he caught her before she hit the ground so she wouldn’t hurt herself. ... Not something an officer commonly does, but that’s just the way Brad goes about his work.”

So the chief’s not surprised that Celestin, 32, is leaving the department this summer for the University of Indiana to do doctoral research into social psychology and cognitive neuroscience with professor Anne Krendl, an expert in the field of stigma.

Because the kind of cop who makes a split-second decision to save a trouble-making suspect from a fall is the kind of cop who wants to understand what drives those split-second decisions.

“I love science, and on top of that, I have always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with the law in general,” Celestin said. “There are pieces of the law I believe in and pieces that I don’t.

“The law, I think, is necessary. Clearly we need to have police. But the law can also be a vehicle for moral imperialism, and it also can amplify our innate prejudices. So part of what I’m interested in studying is the degree to which that still happens.”

Put in law enforcement terms, Celestin wants to know more about the morality, biases and prejudices that drive a human’s split-second decisions – including those that police officers are routinely called on to make in a variety of dangerous situations.

Take, for example, the application of force by a police officer, one of those split-second decisions that can carry life and death consequences.

“We are intuitively racist, for example,” Celestin said. “We’re also intuitively sexist. You take a test called the IAT (Implicit Association Test) that measures reaction time when good and bad adjectives are paired with black and white faces, and we’re slower, for example, to pair good adjectives with black faces. And that is something over which we have no control.

“I guess one of the areas I am hopeful we can make as much progress as possible is to push our intuition to understand the impact of sex and gender and sexual orientation and all of those facets as much as possible and keep in mind we’re human beings with built-in biases, and it’s impossible for any of us to fully overcome them,” he said.

Celestin said the legal system includes judges, police and attorneys “who are lazy with that.”

“They don’t take into account their judgments aren’t perfect,” he said. “I’m interested in looking at that, and education is one of the best ways to look at it. But we have to have data to look at that. Law enforcement has to be data-driven.”

That’s why Celestin, who attended Bethel College, and his wife, Amber, are leaving Newton after a decade and a half.

But Daily expects that his young detective will be heard from again.

“The sky is the limit for this young man,” the longtime Newton police chief said.

“This little stopover he’s making at IU to receive his Ph.D. is a set-up for whatever Brad wants to do. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him heading the FBI.

“And I’d sure vote for him for president, I’ll tell you that. We are going to miss him. A lot.”

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