Cops hesitate more, err less when shooting black suspects, study finds
According to findings from a research team’s innovative experiments, officers are less likely to erroneously shoot unarmed black suspects than they were unarmed whites
With the turmoil in Ferguson (MO) the latest example, activists and many reporters would have us believe that police officers are prejudicially “trigger happy” when dealing with black suspects.
But a scientific study from Washington State University-Spokane suggests just the opposite. In truth, according to findings from the research team’s innovative experiments:
• Officers were less likely to erroneously shoot unarmed black suspects than they were unarmed whites — 25 times less likely, in fact
• And officers hesitated significantly longer before shooting armed suspects who were black, compared to armed subjects who were white or Hispanic
“In sum,” writes Dr. Lois James, a research assistant professor with the university’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology who headed the study, “this research found that participants displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects” in their shooting decisions.
In the past, based largely on incident report analyses and simplistic laboratory experiments, various researchers have concluded that in making deadly force decisions police are strongly influenced by the race or ethnicity of suspects, “independent of criminality.”
In the 1970s, this perspective was memorably captured in one researcher’s statement that “the police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks.” Another claimed that the “disproportionate” number of police shootings of blacks (according to DOJ figures, they are four times more likely to be shot by police than whites) “strongly suggests racial discrimination on a national basis” in law enforcement.
But James points out that it is difficult if not impossible to ferret out racial bias as a decisive factor in shootings from the incomplete and occasionally questionably accurate information included in most incident reports. And the laboratory experiments suggesting bias, she says, commonly “bear almost no resemblance” to real-life deadly force encounters.
For example, a typical research method has involved subjects sitting before a computer and viewing flash pictures of black and white “suspects” paired with weapons or “neutral objects” such as wallets or cell phones. The subjects must respond to these images by pressing “shoot” or “don’t shoot” buttons. Racial bias is then inferred by whether participants are “consistently quicker to shoot armed suspects of a particular race” and by whether decision errors tend to be greater for one race than for the other.
This process lacks what James calls “external validity” — that is, it doesn’t come close to reflecting real-world circumstances, and thus its conclusions are of limited value. “[T]he complex process involved” in deciding to shoot or not shoot and then actually firing a gun is “dramatically different” from the simple reflex of pressing a button, she writes.
Her study involved a more sophisticated, “immersive” approach.
Along with civilians and military personnel who were tested independently, 36 patrol officers and deputies from the Spokane area, all of them white and most of them male, were selected as volunteer subjects for her research. They ranged in age from 31 to 43 and had at least five years on the job.
Armed with a Glock 21 modified to fire a laser beam, the officers one at a time were exposed to a series of at least 10 “highly realistic and arousing” scenarios in a high-definition deadly force judgment and decision-making simulator in WSU’s Simulated Hazardous Operational Tasks laboratory. The equipment permitted precise determination of shot placement and millisecond measurement of shot timing after a threat appeared.
The life-sized scenarios were randomly screened from a pool of 60 one- to two-minute episodes based on actual encounters in which officers have been killed or assaulted. They were filmed in “naturalistic” environments and included disturbance calls, arrest situations, crimes in progress, suspicious person investigations, and traffic stops — the biggest killers of cops. They ranged in “situational difficulty” from “intermediate” to “journeyman,” depending on variables such as the number of people involved, the speed at which action unfolds, and suspect demeanor, intoxication, and deceptive behavior.
Black, white, and Hispanic suspects appeared in the scenarios proportional to their involvement in actual attacks on officers, as compiled in FBI statistics. Suspects were unarmed in about a third of the scenarios.
The key responses that the researchers tested were reaction time and shooting “errors” (in this case, shooting unarmed individuals or failing to shoot armed suspects). James emphasizes that the officer participants had no reason to believe they were being tested for racial or ethnic bias. The issue of suspect race or ethnicity was not raised during the officers’ preparation, and no Ferguson-like, racially charged event was recently in the news that might have overly sensitized them to that concern.
Given the prevailing stereotype that cops are unduly harsh toward black suspects, James acknowledges that the outcome of the experiments was “unexpected.”
• Reaction time. Her findings reveal that officers took “significantly longer” before they shot black suspects than white suspects. Civilians and soldiers in the study also took longer to shoot blacks, but the hesitation by officers was roughly twice as long as that of the civilians. The delay before shooting was particularly noticeable in the most complex scenarios.
In contrast, there was “no significant difference in reaction time between shooting Hispanic suspects and White suspects,” James reports.
“Our primary finding that participants were more hesitant to shoot Black suspects than White or Hispanic suspects is in direct contrast to prior experimental findings that participants are significantly quicker to shoot Black suspects,” she writes.
• Decision errors. Where officers made errors in James’s study, they were “less likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed White suspects,” she writes. Indeed, “we calculated that participants were 25 times less likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than they were to shoot unarmed White suspects.” Again, this was a significantly greater multiple than was recorded for other groups in the study.
Unarmed suspects were most likely to be shot in journeyman scenarios (the most difficult), and there was “no significant difference between the likelihood of shooting unarmed Hispanic suspects and unarmed White suspects,” the researchers found.
Moreover, the officers did not fail to shoot armed white suspects any more frequently than they failed to shoot threatening suspects who were black or Hispanic.
“These findings are also in direct contrast to [earlier researchers] who found that participants were more likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects and fail to shoot armed White suspects,” James noted.
These results revealed that racial bias did exist in the officers’ reactions to the scenarios, James writes — ”but in the opposite direction that would be expected from prior experimental studies.” Her tests “showed significant evidence of bias favoring Black suspects, rather than discriminating against them.”
A “potential explanation,” she speculates, may be a “behavioral ‘counter-bias’ “ or “administrative effect”; that is, an extra caution by officers against impulsive reactions to black suspects because of “real-world concern over discipline, liability, or public disapproval.”
[Although not relevant to the researchers’ primary concerns, James’ team also recorded something that was not surprising: Compared to the civilian volunteers, “police and military participants had better shooting accuracy, fired faster follow-on shots, were far more interactive with the scenarios (for example, shouting at suspects: ‘drop your weapon or I will shoot!’), and had superior command presence....”]
James considers her research to be a pilot study and as such she plans to expand it numerically and geographically before feeling confident that the findings can be extrapolated to sworn law enforcement generally. In work that is already underway, she hopes among other things to investigate whether this finding is replicated across larger and more diverse law enforcement samples, and if so, to “determine whether bias favoring Black suspects is a consequence of administrative measures (e.g., education, training, policies, and laws), and identify the cognitive processes that underlie this phenomenon.”
Meanwhile, the existing study, published in print last year under the title “Results from experimental trials testing participant responses to White, Hispanic and Black suspects in high-fidelity deadly force judgment and decision-making simulations,” can be accessed in full for a fee at the website of the Journal of Experimental Criminology. Click here to go there.
James can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Joining her in conducting the study were two other WSU PhDs, Dr. Bryan Vila and Dr. Kenn Daratha.