Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

Coloring Inside the Thin Blue Line: Police Shootings and Race

In the annals of psychology, there have been countless experiments that bared our essential racism. Show people photos of random human beings of different colors, ask them to complete some task that involves judging others based on those pictures, and our base assumptions about those people come pouring out.

But here's an experiment that could easily have followed that pattern--and didn't.

University of Chicago psychologists teamed up with a commander from the Denver Police Department who is also an academic at the University of Denver to see how police officers--their trigger fingers at the ready--responded when photos flashed of men pointing guns --or cell phones-- at the officers. Some of the men in the photos were black and some were white, and the idea was to see whether the race of the stranger changed the way the cops reacted. The police reactions were also compared to those of civilians who took part in the same experiment.

Results: Civilians and police both reacted more swiftly to an armed black man than to either an unarmed black man or an armed white man--a pretty clear sign that race plays a role in such responses, and in the usual stereotypical manner. But wait--the police officers turned out to be vastly better than the civilians at discerning who really posed a threat, regardless of race. The police in the experiment shot only 13 percent of the unarmed men, regardless of race, while civilians fired at 29 percent of the unarmed whites and 35 percent of the unarmed blacks.

The study concludes that "the officers' ultimate decisions about whether or not to shoot are less susceptible to
racial bias than are the decisions of community members. The data suggest that the officers' training and/or expertise may improve their overall performance (yielding faster responses, greater sensitivity and reduced tendencies to shoot) and decrease racial bias in decision outcomes."

Psychologists and sociologists have wondered for many years whether the statistical truth that police shoot blacks disproportionately is a reflection of bias or just the fact that police confront blacks in dangerous situations in disproportionate numbers. The Chicago psychologists cite a U.S. Justice Department study that found that "police shoot black suspects more often than white suspects, per capita, because black people are disproportionately likely to be involved in crime (particularly violent crime)." That 2001 study concluded that "just as black suspects are five times more likely than white suspects to die at the hands of police, police officers are five times more likely to die at the hands of a black suspect than a white suspect."

In the new experiment, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Joshua Correll and his associates conclude that the 72 hours of weapons training that police officers receive make a real and important difference in their ability to overcome whatever racial bias they came in with--as represented by the results achieved by the untrained lay subjects in the experiment.

"Expertise improves the outcome of the decision process (increasing sensitivity and reducing the unwarranted tendency to shoot, particularly for black targets)," the study finds.

That's good news in an arena of life where we generally hear only bad news about ourselves.

By Marc Fisher |  September 4, 2007; 7:35 AM ET
Previous: Bluegrass Goes Out to Digital Pasture | Next: New Ballpark, New Eats


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Sorry i'm a day late with a slogan comment, but I think I have "taxation without representation" beat:

Washington: Cupidity with Humidity

Keep up the good work,
David Kipen

Posted by: david kipen | September 4, 2007 7:47 AM

Yes, racism certainly exists in the US.

But it's a fact that young black men are considerably more likely to be involved in violent crime than pretty much any other segment of US society. So it stands to reason that cops and people in general are going to associate crime and threat with young black men.

It's unfortunate, but that is not racism. It's reality.

It sucks for all the innocent young black men out there. But they are, in a real sense, yet more victims of the violent young black men out there. Chalk it up to the stupidity of thug culture.

But it is not racism.

Posted by: Hillman | September 4, 2007 8:40 AM

Marc, you've obviously never worked for a police department. I worked with the Metropolitan Police Department in a non-uniform position. 99.9% of the perps of violent crimes were black. The one white guy was the guy who shot Dr. Halberstam. Just think of the demographics of this city. In the nearly 3 years I worked there, only 1 rape/sexual assault was committed by a retarded white teenager. All the rest were black or Hispanic. The black detective who handled that case mused "I was beginning to think white boys didn't like it." I left because I worked in an agency run by black men and I am a white female. Talk about sexual harrassment. I don't know how Chief Cathy Lanier can stand it.

Posted by: Lurking for today.... | September 4, 2007 9:10 AM

Why didn't you talk about the last few shootings in the metro area that caused such an uproar? A black Prince Georges county detective who followed a black man into Fairfax and shot and killed him, the black officer working off-duty at an I-HOP in Arlington who shot and killed a white boy, and the black Prince Georges County homeland security officer who shot and killed a delivery man. But if you mentioned these shootings by black officers it would ruin your agenda. The truth is that police officers, both black and white, use deadly force when they fear for their own lives. It has nothing to do with race.

Posted by: Jay | September 4, 2007 9:16 AM

One of the greatest tragedies a police officer can endure is being the perpetrator of "friendly fire," when a cop accidently shoots another cop. In many parts of the city, it's not an unreasonable assumption that a black guy with a gun is probably a criminal, while a white guy with a gun is probably a plain-clothed (or off duty) cop.

Posted by: chrisnich | September 4, 2007 9:40 AM

Civilians' reactions compared to the LEOs when confronted with danger-what were the citizens' backgrounds: weapons' familiarity, shooting background, concealed carry permits, or just citizens without firearms training? Ya didn't say did ya?

Posted by: me | September 4, 2007 9:50 AM

So training and experience cause people to do better than people who don't have training and experience? I don't see any agenda yet so I'm wondering what new info we're supposed to take away from this article.

Posted by: Stick | September 4, 2007 11:26 AM

I have heard - from cops - that undercover African American police officers are often victims of friendly fire from officers of all colors. Perhaps someone knows about some hard-number analysis of this.

Posted by: Mike Licht | September 4, 2007 11:30 AM

Jay - Those shootings have little to do w/ the study. The study (based on Marc's description; I haven't read the source) was testing to see how cops and civilians react when they have only a split second to do so.

Posted by: mrm0to | September 4, 2007 12:11 PM

Wow, "it's not about race" has been quoted by a few here,I'll say mention sterotypical things about the culture, "the price of living the thug life", etc.,...that's just reality huh.

Well, white people are thugs too, can we say Oliver North, can we say ENRON, big time thugs...the list goes on, and honestly, I don't allow my little daughter around "white men" (you know due to the higher percentage of them being molesters).

It's simply reality.

As for police and black people, this isn't something new, we have thousands of innocent black men and women, who have been wrongly convicted, or killed, so let's not ignore the history, but also unfortunately it still exist.

I am still pulling for the gun law to be lifted. (I'm more curious)

Thank you

Posted by: NE DC | September 4, 2007 12:58 PM

What were the men in the photos wearing? That might have influenced the results. I did not read the study, but I scanned for a mention of clothing.

The bigger news, the police shot unarmed people 13% of the time. Cripes, that is staggering! Forget about that this is better than civilians, 13% of the time!!!!

Posted by: bkp | September 4, 2007 2:20 PM

Technically speaking NE DC, Enron and Oliver North were not "thugs" but nice try on the false equality.

Posted by: Stick | September 4, 2007 3:33 PM

To Stick, oh please stop trying to use fake intelligence to override my point.

You and everyone knows, "thugs" or "dope dealers", "arms dealers", are all the same for exception of suits vs. baggy pants.

Actually, you, yourself historically would be connected in same way to a fore-father of thuggery, or mischeif. I wish you people would stop pretending to be so virgins to a wicked past (read 16,17,18 hundreds history).

False Equality? What the hell does that mean. At times the smartest are dumbest,we are very equal in crime.







Get it yet?

Posted by: NE DC | September 4, 2007 4:25 PM

"the statistical truth that police shoot blacks disproportionately"

What about the statistics on blacks shooting police? I would be curious to see that. How about we explore some of the factors that may influence a police officer's sense of danger?

Posted by: stegman | September 4, 2007 4:54 PM

NE: Are you really suggesting that young black males don't commit violent crimes FAR more than nearly any other group?

Do I really have to get the stats for you?

As for comparing thug street violence to crimes like Enron and the like - you have a valid point. The harm the Enron losers did was very real. And it hurt thousands. But that wasn't part of this study, was it? And it has nothing to do with street thuggery, which, like it or not, is very common in many black communities.

I never said all blacks live the thug life. But some most certainly do. Denying that fact isn't going to help matters. In fact, that very denial makes the problem worse.

Posted by: Hillman | September 4, 2007 5:40 PM

Interestingly enough - no mention of the color of the police or the civilians.

Would it throw the test if it were revealed that the majority of the black police were just as quick or quicker on the trigger?

Or was that deliberately left out to ensure the bias?

Posted by: Anonymous | September 4, 2007 6:53 PM

(speaks for itself another "white crime"

Federal Prosecutor Arrested In Child Sex Sting
POSTED: 2:04 pm EDT September 17, 2007
UPDATED: 4:26 pm EDT September 17, 2007

DETROIT -- A U.S. Justice Department official has been arrested on suspicion of traveling to Detroit over the weekend to have sex with a minor.

John David R. Atchison, 53, an assistant U.S. attorney from the northern district of Florida, was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Detroit Monday afternoon.

An undercover officer posed as a mother offering her child to Atchison for sex, according to police.

Prosecutors said Atchison flew from Pensacola, Fla., to Detroit on Sunday intending to have sex with the 5-year-old girl.

He was arrested at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Posted by: NE DC | September 17, 2007 4:38 PM




Posted by: TAMARA | September 25, 2007 11:57 PM

Racism is a part of America, our country was built on it, the government endorsed it, calling blacks 3/4 human, disallowing us the right to an education, then the people it appointed to enforce these rules of the government was legally given the right to treat us like animals. So its no wonder the cops, the politicians and to make a complete picture the news spread the stereo types and added fuel to this brightly burning fire.. You, me, hell almost everyone is ...Not one person in this country can read a story and not already have the person who did it already figured out, a petty man...mass murder ... a white man. No wonder the world thinks of us as a violent and selfish country..cause we are.

Posted by: nyc blk mn | October 23, 2007 2:55 PM

I see one of the post say "It's not racist it's reality. Well The truth is Since the european arrived on the land, as an Nu-Being Male ( Afro-Native American) I have been and still is the target of greedy banksters, poly-tricksters, & any who seek to have free or damn-near free labor, THE SOURCE OF "AMERICAS WEALTH." i AM NOT A CAPTAIN OF INDUSTRY BUT IF I WERE, WOULD I SET MY SELF UP TO A BUSINESS VENTURE IN WHICH I HOPE TO ELIMINATE?
Well according to wall street, the white house, the military industrial complex, & the Vatican, this is exactly what they have done. Prisons ( i.e prisoners) are traded as a stock, as in for them to be invested in to, this from a nation who wishes to "CLEAN UP CRIME." It is well documented that the C.i.A & the military are the ones importing the drugs in to the country, so why is it that instead of destroying drugs, once the u.s government TAKES control of another sovereign nation where drugs are grown, traffic always increases in case after case. How come there are not drug labs being shot up as in the case of a drug house where product is stored rather than made. Black are arrested more for petty "drug" crime ( weed) than almost any other crime. Look in to Your Governments co-intell-pro? It is on public record yet no one has investigated, reputed or even talked about this tremendous CRIME. This is only one of a long string of atrocity committed by this nation against Hue-men, willingly by those who are "good Christians." If we want to talk about reality then let's. How ever I will no longer allow people who are only interested in repeating the slanders given to in sure divide & concur remains the law of this land...
Americas Secret Power by Loch K. Johnson
Barry and the Boy's by ?
Alex Jones
David Icke
Steve Cokely

I can only show you the door, You must decided to walk in...

Posted by: Black Turttle Warrior... | November 19, 2007 7:56 AM

Hello! Good Site! Thanks you! ymrdkkuvrla

Posted by: accfsdjhja | November 23, 2007 5:55 AM

Another big drug maker, Pfizer, for example, was harshly criticized in 2001 for reporting that its painkiller Celebrex caused fewer ulcers than older drugs after six months of use. Pfizer’s study had originally been designed — but failed — to show that Celebrex caused fewer ulcers after a full year of use. Yesterday, Merck and Schering said they did not yet know the results of the trial. They said they were changing the endpoint only because they want to be able to analyze the data more quickly. A panel of outside scientists recommended the change last Friday, said Lee Davies, a spokesman for Schering. Mr. Davies declined to disclose the members of the panel. Dr. Howard Weintraub, the clinical director of the New York University center for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, said cardiologists were especially concerned about the trial’s results because Zetia works...

Posted by: sjxtqcpmxs | November 24, 2007 8:17 PM

Add UV radiation from the sun, and the magnitude of sorting out what is truly carcinogenic becomes evident. Aging is a major cause of cancer, associated not just with chemicals, but a normal process called telomere shortening. So, except for high exposure workers, it is completely unfounded to claim that there exists a chemically driven cancer epidemic. Accusing cancer researchers of choosing not to address prevention shows a lack of understanding of the biology of cancer. To infer that the interest in therapeutics derives from the fact that cancer treatment has somehow become an industry is to be misinformed. Despite ads suggesting that drug companies...

Posted by: otoqvyzynp | November 24, 2007 8:24 PM

For this is where candidates Wanda Adams and Lawrence Allen Jr. have their storefront campaign headquarters, 12 blocks apart. The area also is where both candidates have worked on some of Houston's grittier problems, earning their credentials as grass roots public servants. Cullen, its empty storefronts and busted sidewalks intertwined with signs of redevelopment and neighborhood pride, symbolizes a district full of need and promise. Adams, on leave as a coordinator of the city's Go Green Initiative for recycling and other environmental programs, has the support of the district's outgoing councilwoman, Ada Edwards. At least three other council members are in Adams' corner, along with former Mayor Lee...

Posted by: gobhampmxx | November 25, 2007 11:35 AM

Satyadev Dubey came from Bilaspur in Madhya Pradesh to Mumbai with the intention of becoming a Test Cricketer. Instead, he got ensnared in the world of theatre. He joined the Theatre Unit, the theatre group cum school founded by Ebrahim Alkazi. "The teacher who influenced me most, however, was P.D. Shenoy," says Dubey. "It was he who pointed out to me that the structure of a play is the network of tensions that holds its different parts together. Once that was grasped, everything became clear." And the characteristic feature of all Dubey's productions has been the attention to the structure of the play, and the absolute clarity of detail, with no fuzzy corners or unresolved...

Posted by: lhqidsnlqa | November 26, 2007 6:50 AM

ns, today announced the company presented data from a Phase I study of one of its leading pipeline products, AV650 (tolperisone HCl), at the 37th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) on November 4, 2007 at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California. This Phase I data showed AV650 to be well tolerated with no evidence of sedation. Glenn Morrison, Ph.D., Associate Director, Clinical Affairs, presented data from the Phase I study on the safety, tolerability and pharmacokinetics of AV650 in both fasted and fed individuals. AV650 is an oral therapy intended for the treatment of disabling...

Posted by: wcgmeodaxv | November 26, 2007 9:59 AM

An Irish journalist who has made controversial allegations about a Government minister and an airline pilot regularly using cocaine has fled to New Zealand amid calls for her to name the minister. Dublin journalist Justine Delaney Wilson who has flown to New Zealand the home of her husband has so far declined to reveal the names, the Irish Independent newspaper reported. Delaney Wilson issued a statement from New Zealand this week stating she had destroyed a digital recording of a Irish Government minister admitting taking cocaine. The recording was made while researching an RTE television programme, on which she has since based a book. One of the country's leading experts in defamation law claimed that both Delaney Wilson and her publishers, Gill and Macmillan, may face legal action over her book, The High Society. They run...

Posted by: zwfcvzdjpg | November 26, 2007 10:58 AM

It would be hard to come up with a fair and reasonable way to impose that." Kelly, however, suggested that Jones's two game suspension might have been too light. Kelly hopes that in the future, the NHLPA can have a greater say in player discipline. "It never struck me as right and it's not just hockey, it's every sport that the commissioner of the league has the sole discretion on disciplinary issues," Kelly said. "How is that justified when he's an employee of the owners? There are some owners that have greater say than other owners. He's going to be influenced by some of that. I...

Posted by: upbwfjysmq | November 26, 2007 1:57 PM

'Overall sentiment is fragile and the market is seeing greater volatility,' said Kim Young Gak, analyst at Hyundai Securities. (OOTC:HYSCF) The KOSPI is likely to trade sideways for a while, Kim said. 'I don't expect much from Wall Street as consumer spending may not meet investors' expectations. This will fuel concerns that the credit troubles are spilling into other parts of the economy,' said Kim. Investors should trade conservatively, Kim said. Volume traded reached 301 million shares worth 6.0 trillion won. Decliners beat gainers 523 to 289, with 59 issues unchanged. Foreign investors were net sellers of shares worth 562.1 billion won while institutions were net buyers of 566.7 billion won worth. Retail investors were net sellers of 130.1 billion won worth. Stocks of...

Posted by: nvzymeiwjo | November 26, 2007 4:48 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company