In 2005, E. Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche tested 48 Florida police officers and found that they were initially more likely to shoot unarmed Black “suspects” in a crime-fighting simulation than White people holding similar objects. Interestingly, however, as the test went on, the officers improved, and by the end of the session, any bias had been removed.
But in the real world, officers don’t get a second chance, and accidental shootings do occur. In many communities, racial tensions are already running high, and an interracial shooting by a police officer can bring those tensions to the boiling point — causing even more damage than the shooting itself. It’s critical to understand why these accidents happen and what can be done to prevent them, not only to protect innocent suspects, but also to build community trust in police officers and increase the effectiveness of law enforcement.
Joshua Correll and five other researchers devised a test to assess racial bias shooting that was similar to Plant and Peruche’s, but also more realistic. Twenty-five Black actors and twenty-five White actors were photographed holding either a gun or a benign object like a wallet or can of cola in several different poses. In the new test, random backgrounds (urban scenes, country roads, etc.) were flashed on a computer screen. At random intervals, one of the actors was inserted into the screen. Then the police officer had to decide whether to shoot or not shoot as quickly as possible, and press a button registering his or her response.
This test was given to three groups of people: 124 Denver police officers, 113 police officers from across the U.S., and 135 Denver civilians. Was there any bias in the decision to shoot? This graph shows the results of a statistical measure, c, designed to measure propensity to shoot an unarmed person:
The police from the national sample were no more likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed White suspects (I’ve used the inverse of the actual c values to make this graph easier to read). While the Denver police showed a small propensity to shoot unarmed Black suspects, this didn’t rise to the level of significance. Only the civilians were more likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects at a statistically significant level.
However, further analysis of the data revealed something more interesting. Among the national officers, there was a significant correlation (r=.31) between racial bias and the size of the urban area where the officers worked, as well as a correlation (r=22) between the proportion of ethnic minorities in their community and racial bias. So officers who worked in larger cities were more likely to show bias against unarmed black suspects, as were officers in areas with larger minority populations.
So while overall there doesn’t appear to be much bias toward shooting unarmed Black suspects among police, where the bias does occur seems to be the areas where it’s most likely to occur: places where more minorities are living.
The researchers also attempted to measure racist attitudes among the police officers, and they didn’t find any correlation between racist beliefs and racial bias in shooting. But many of the officers either refused to answer this part of the survey or told the researchers (off the record) that they hadn’t answered those questions honestly — the officers knew what was being tested, and knew how to give the “right” answers, even when that wasn’t what they actually believed.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the case of police who’d had a particular type of training involving live actors, some unarmed, and some “armed” with paintball guns or other non-lethal weapons. This training correlated with significantly better ability to detect whether a suspect was armed or unarmed, regardless of race. Police engage in a variety of training, ranging from video simulations to target practice, but only this particular type of training revealed itself to be particularly effective in preventing accidental shootings — at least in the simulated task that was used in this study.
So while some racial bias was found in this study, Correll’s team was able to identify both where it was most likely to occur, and some potential ways to reduce racial bias even further. Let’s hope that police departments begin to put this information to good use.
Joshua Correll, Bernadette Park, Charles M. Judd, Bernd Wittenbrink, Melody S. Sadler, Tracie Keesee (2007). Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (6), 1006-1023 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1996