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.
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