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New study: Cop shooting decisions not driven by race bias

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New research shows that trained, experienced police officers are clearly more successful than civilians at eliminating racial bias when making shooting decisions.

This conclusion, from a major study headed by a prominent University of Chicago psychologist, may help in rebutting inflammatory charges by activists that police shootings of black subjects are racially driven.

Officers attending a Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar were among those tested for the multi-faceted study, which is reported in detail in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Assn.

Across a series of experiments, researchers documented that:

• Cops were faster than civilian community members at detecting the presence of a weapon and deciding correctly whether a subject should be shot or not shot;

• Laypeople were more likely to shoot an unarmed suspect if he is black rather than white, but “police showed no such tendency;”

• Although both officers and community members took longer to decide whether to shoot or not shoot an unarmed black suspect, officers “seemed to overcome” this hint of prejudice and ultimately made “less biased decisions.”

In summary, the researchers found, officers’ training and expertise yield “faster responses, greater sensitivity” to potential deadly threats, and a reduced inclination “to shoot a suspect because of his or her race.”

As we all know, black suspects are more likely to be fatally shot by police than white suspects (five times more likely per capita, according to DOJ data). Protesters enraged by high-profile police shootings commonly complain that this is because of “racist” cops’ unbridled prejudice rather than the disproportionate representation of minorities in violent criminal activity and, consequently, in police confrontations. (Police are five times more likely to die at the hands of a black suspect than a white suspect.)

A number of experiments with civilians during this decade have shown that “race can play an important role in decisions about the danger or threat posed by a particular person.” But experimental findings regarding police behavior in this regard are rare.

So a five-person team, headed by Dr. Joshua Correll, a U. of C. specialist in “inter-group relations, stereotyping and prejudice,” decided to compare “police officers with samples of laypeople drawn from the communities those officers serve” to see what differences might be detected.

The hypothesis was that police training and expertise “should minimize stereotypic errors” related to race in deadly force decision-making. In other words, practice should enable officers to “more effectively exert control over their behavioral choices (relative to untrained civilians).”

All participants in Correll’s study were shown 100 photographic slides of black or white males in five different postures against various “realistic” urban and rural backgrounds on a video game-like device. Each was flashed on the screen very briefly. Some of the subjects were armed with one of four types of handguns, some held “innocuous” objects, such as a cell phone, a Coke can or a large wallet. When a weapon was present, it accounted for roughly 0.2% of the visual field, so it had to be searched for “amid a complex stimulus array.”

Any armed target was presumed to be “an imminent threat and should be shot as quickly as possible” by pressing a “shoot” button. Unarmed targets were to be regarded as posing “no threat” and should be dealt with by quickly pushing a “don’t-shoot” button. Speed and accurate decision-making were what counted.

Performance was compared across three samples:

1. 124 officers from Denver PD who volunteered during roll call recruitment. Most were white males, 84% worked patrol.

2. 127 civilians, a mixture of males, females, whites, blacks and Hispanics, engaged at DMV offices in four Denver police districts.

3. A “national police sample” of 113 officers (also white male, mostly) drawn at a Street Survival Seminar in Las Vegas. This group came from 14 different states and included investigators, SWAT team members and a variety of other categories in addition to patrol (58%).

Overall, the experiments revealed, officers’ performance in shoot/don’t shoot decision-making “exceeded that of the civilians in several ways.”

1. Police response times were faster. “On average, officers were simply quicker to make correct shoot/don’t-shoot decisions than were civilians.”

2. Police weapon-detection was superior. “They were better able to differentiate armed targets from unarmed targets,” regardless of the race of the suspect.

3. Police were significantly less ‘trigger happy’ and less racially biased. “Community members set a lower, more lenient criterion for shooting black targets than either of the two officer samples…reflecting a tendency to favor the ‘shoot’ response.” That is, they were more likely to shoot an unarmed black suspect than an unarmed white suspect. “But this bias was weaker, or even nonexistent, for the officers…. [O]fficers set a higher, more stringent threshold for the decision to shoot black targets.” The criterion for shooting white subjects was about the same across all three test groups.

4. Police were better at overcoming possible bias. One aspect of the experiments presented a subtle opportunity to surface latent racial prejudice. That concerned the response time when “stereotype-inconsistent” targets were flashed on the screen; i.e., armed white subjects and unarmed black subjects. Both civilians and officers tended to take longer to react when this occurred, suggesting that their thought process was dealing with an unexpected situation, one that differed from their preconceived notions.

In the researchers’ minds, this indicated that the cops were not free of bias. However, even when time pressure to make a decision was significantly increased, “[i]t is important to note…that the officers differed dramatically from the civilians in terms of the [accurate] decisions they ultimately made.” In the end, the delay in reaction did not translate into poor decisions.

(What the researchers referred to as this “latency bias,” incidentally, seemed most pronounced among officers “serving in urban, high-crime and predominantly minority districts.”)

The researchers credited “police training and on-the-job experience in complex encounters” for preparing officers to override any “response tendencies that stem from racial stereotypes.”

From a training standpoint, they stressed the importance of “live, interactive” exercises that provide officers “with a chance to hone their skills in a manner that improves performance.” No other type of training, these asserted, is as closely correlated to fast and accurate decision-making.

Read the full 18-page report of this research, Across the Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot

[Thanks to Wayne Schmidt, executive director of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, and Tom Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council, for tipping us to this research.]

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