Shooting unarmed suspects: A matter of race?

[Originally posted in November 2006]

ResearchBlogging.orgThe recent controversial shooting of an unarmed black man in New York has generated terrible grief and perhaps justifiable anger. But if officers honestly believed the man was armed and intended to harm them, weren't they justified in shooting?

Perhaps, but an important additional question is this: were they predisposed to believe he was armed simply because he was black? Consider this quick movie:

Click to play (QuickTime required)

It will flash two pictures. One man is armed, the other unarmed. Who do you shoot? I've primed you to think about race, so it's not really a fair test. If you were a police officer who believed his life to be in danger, would you respond in the same way? (You can use the slider to see which man really was armed.)

In 2003, a team led by J. Correll flashed random photos of white and black faces, some superimposed with guns, others with harmless items such as cell phones and wallets. They asked college students to press one key indicating "shoot" the suspect, and another indicating "don't shoot." The students were more likely to mistakenly fire at black faces that were unarmed compared to unarmed white faces.

But what about police officers? With their special training and rules about when to fire, perhaps they will do better. A study by E. Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche tested police officers on a similar task.

They created composite images by superimposing guns and harmless items on the faces of 9 white men and 9 black men. The faces were previously matched for attractiveness. These faces were randomly flashed on a computer screen; each face was shown both with a gun and with a harmless object.

48 mostly white police officers who volunteered to participate in the project were told only that the study was about "decisions to shoot." They had 630 milliseconds after each face was displayed to press the "shoot" or "don't shoot" button on the computer running the test. As the test began, results were the same as with college students: Police officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot black suspects holding harmless items than white suspects holding the same items. They made an average of 3.63 errors over 20 trials when the suspect was black, but only 2.65 errors when the suspect was white.

But an interesting result occurred as the test continued. After another 80 trials, about 40 of which included the key situation of a person holding a harmless object, the disparity between reactions to white and black suspects disappeared. During the second half of the experiment, the average number of errors for black suspects diminished to 2.60, statistically indistinguishable from the rate for white suspects.

Plant and Peruche believe this is a hopeful result, suggesting that police officers can be trained to eliminate bias in their work. They may be right, but I do have one potential objection: police are also "trained" by what they actually see every day as the patrol the streets. Won't this training -- for better or for worse -- trump whatever they learn in a few hours in the training room?

The problem in the Queens shooting of Sean Bell was, like most police incidents, more complex than the scenario presented in this study. An informant may have told the police Bell was armed, and he had attempted to ram the police with his car more than once. Also, the question was less about whether shooting at all was justified, and more about whether so many shots should have been fired. Police may have assumed other officers were justified in firing, and so that's why they fired themselves.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, offers another, counterintuitive solution to the problem of accidental police shootings: Police should most often work alone. With the variable of other officers removed from the problem, individuals are more likely to think for themselves. Without the option of "backup," they are less likely to get themselves into dangerous situations in the first place.

Ashby Plant, E., & Michelle Peruche, B. (2005). The Consequences of Race for Police Officers' Responses to Criminal Suspects Psychological Science, 16 (3), 180-183 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00800.x

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I was one of the college students who did that study(unless my data didn't make the final cut, for whatever reason), it's curious to see a writeup of it.

The study was in the form of a game, with a scoring system(large negative number for declaring an armed picture unarmed, smaller negative number for declaring an unarmed picture armed, smallish positive number for correct identifications). I asked "Should I be attempting to maximize my accuracy, or my score?" The person administering the test didn't have a clear answer. I ended up attempting to maximize accuracy, since I figured that they were looking at unconscious bias; but the task was difficult enough that I think I would have maximized my score just by identifying all pictures as armed.

I wonder if that had any effect on the results.

@phisrow: My office mate here at UW-Madison has been working on a lot of the follow-up to this shooter bias research, so I can confidently say that they were interested in both accuracy and score. I think that maximizing one over the other wouldn't have a big effect on the results.

That being said, I've had the opportunity to witness and help work on a lot of the interesting follow-up research to Ashby's original shooter-bias research. For example, one current project (still underway) uses videos instead of images to display the black and white suspects holding guns or other objects.

Another shooter study that was conducted in part by my office mate is a recent study by Plant and her colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This study investigates the effect of Obama's election on shooter bias. The study found that implicit anti-black bias had been dramatically decreased during the voluminous media coverage of Obama's campaign. This decrease in implicit bias was related to both a decreased tendency to shoot unarmed black men in the shooter simulation and increased likelihood of mentioning Obama in response to a prompt to list what comes to mind when thinking about black people.

In short, shooter research is alive and well 6 years after the original shooter study.

Two points.

First, most police, particularly sheriffs and police in poorer communities, don't get a whole lot of special training beyond the initial training at the police academy. Many departments are struggling to buy sufficient ammunition to allow officers to maintain minimum firearms qualification requirements so the departments can maintain certification and insurance. Specialized training is expensive and smaller departments just don't have the funds so 'training' may be limited to an hour twice a year on a range to confirm minimal levels of marksmanship. This offset by the reality that suing a small town after a shooting is unlikely to get you much return. Larger and better funded departments often have much more lavish initial and refresher training.

Second, the police are a brotherhood. The unwritten rule is that if one officer feels sufficiently threatened to shoot everyone who can reasonably shoots. This prevents the egregious situation where a suspect gets off a shot and kills or wounds an officer and the shot you didn't take may have been the one that could have prevented the injury. Everyone wants to do and show that they have done everything they could have done to prevent harm to a fellow officer. Failure to do everything possible is a violation of the code.

The less talked about dynamic is that if everyone shoots the blame gets spread around, and the facts and evidence obscured in a hail of gunfire. Which is some comfort to officers because they know that on their worse day the blame will be, to some extent, socialized.

A subset of this has to do with tactical training. The triggering events and procedure for shooting are made reflexive. This is seen in SWAT raids and military actions where the visual presentation of suspect and gun-like object trigger shooting and continued shooting until the 'threat' has been clearly and obviously 'neutralized'.

In military and SWAT raids people who fall against walls or otherwise fail to appear 'neutralized', 'serviced' is another interesting term, continue to be shot. In one case during a military action a hostage taker was shot almost two hundred times.

The reason behind this is that the teams were advancing in small groups and as soon as they saw the guy they reflexively squeezed off a three to five round burst aimed at the center of mass. The first time he was shot the body was wedged into a corner with his weapon strung across his chest by a strap. In the noise, smoke and confusion virtually every team member that advanced down that hall over the forty minutes involved took a shot. The guy was 'very dead'. The total number of shots could not be determined by looking at the body.

A similar overkill situation can happen in a very short time when police are trained to keep shooting until the weapon is dropped, is clearly not pointing in the general direction of the officers, or the person is obviously incapacitated. The later point usually meaning prone and not moving.

Combine these protocols with multiple police officers, and high-capacity semi-automatic weapons (ten to fifteen rounds per gun) and the number of shots fired can escalate rapidly.

This took place literally around the corner from me. Literally, as in I don't even have to cross the street. On one end of the block is a housing project diagonally across the street and a really grimy, shady corner store and lots of thuggish loiterers. At the other end of the street is the gentrified sied with a nice corner store with organic food, the french bistro-cafe, the highbrow African restaurant and the yuppie toy store. I really think the surroundings make a big difference and if this exact same thing happened on the good side of the block versus the "bad" side that also would have played a role.

I agree that surroundings make a difference. If you are already feeling threatened when you are in the area, you are already predisposed to act violently in what you believe to be is self defense.

WE all have felt our lives were in some sort of twisted triangle at one point or another.How ever when you take on the roll of a police officer you accept the responsibility to put your life at risk to protect the innocentand there is only one second for you to make a decision between life and death.This is hard since our natural instinct is to survive.I feel an officer has the right to shoot and injure a man if and only if the ciecumstance he is faced with has put his life or an innocent one's life in danger.Anything else should not be accepted as these actions have led to a big mistrust in the one thing that we should be able to trust the most,our law inforcement system.Hopefully some young officer will read this and change his mind about shooting a man vefore understanding the true situation at hand.You naver know,but you could be killing someone's father ,brother,mother,son ,or daughter over a pack of cigaretts.I t would be nice for us all to get along.

By desmonds james (not verified) on 08 Aug 2009 #permalink

Interesting article in terms of the recent research that further substantiates that even persons who do not self assess as biased do in fact exhibit bias behaviourally. tragic - but we are hard wired in some cases to discriminate...