Responding to a national uprising against police violence and a local citizenry agitated by the restrictions of the pandemic, the Belfast City Council on June 16 approved anti-bias training for city employees, to be conducted by a company composed largely of police.

“Because of a pandemic and social media and a combination of lots of different things, I think our city staff is interacting with a public that is more agitated than usual,” City Manager Erin Herbig told the council. “And with the executive order, we’re often giving people information that they wish they weren’t hearing.”

Herbig recommended, and the council ultimately approved, hiring Workplace Performance Inc., a Monroe-based consultancy founded in 2011 by David Tripp, a former commander of Maine State Police Troop D. Seven of the eight members of the WPI team come from careers in law enforcement or criminal justice — the eighth, Chief Operating Officer Marie Hansen, is dean of the College of Business at Husson University. WPI’s website lists a variety of professional development services, including leadership training, coaching, strategic planning, and training in a trademarked social and emotional intelligence program.

Herbig said WPI previously trained staff of the Belfast Police Department and the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and received high marks from both. Training for Belfast city employees would cover three areas, she said: implicit bias, understanding individual differences, and emotional intelligence. Herbig said Tripp described implicit bias with an example in which a person considering a new truck shows a strong preference for Ford over Dodge.

“There are reasons that we all have biases,” she said, “from something as simple as a truck to something as complicated as race, and I think it seems like a good opportunity to build our staff so they have more tools in their toolbox and are really fully equipped to deal with the public that I think we all see as being more divided than it has been in the past.”

Tripp did not respond to multiple voicemails seeking comment and additional information about WPI’s services.

Councilors applauded the idea of the training and approved spending $2,500 for two sessions of the four-hour course to accommodate all full-time city employees. Several councilors also voiced interest in attending.

“This is not something we’re trying to impose on staff because we think there’s a problem with the staff,” City Councilor Neal Harkness said. “We all have unconscious biases. We all have prejudices we don’t recognize. . . . We want everybody to be able to look at our city staff and think, ‘These are people who understand or are sensitive to our concerns, and I don’t have to worry. When I go to Belfast, I don’t have to worry.’ ”

The Free Press spoke with two city councilors about the decision to hire police to train city employees in a skill that protesters around the country say police have repeatedly shown they lack. Both said it hadn’t raised red flags for them.

“I’m open to it,” Councilor Mike Hurley said. “I think it’s good that we’re doing it.”

He added that the root of the bias problem lies with larger systems that have created inequality in housing, health care, food and wages: “We’ve built an underclass. There’s no doubt about it. And that affects how we see everybody.”

City Manger Herbig rejected the premise that police are bad at managing their own implicit biases, adding that the training is fundamentally about customer service, for which WPI came highly recommended.

“This is not in response to anything,” she said. “Important conversations are happening now, and city staff are dealing with a more and more stressed public.” She reiterated that the pandemic is a major source of this stress.