"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013


Cops racist in shooting? Not as much as many of us

July 3, 2007
Special to World Science  

Sci­en­tif­ic ev­i­dence lends only weak, or no, sup­port to the pop­u­lar idea that po­lice shoot un­armed black peo­ple more readily than un­armed whites, a new study sug­gests. In­stead, the study turned up a sur­prise: it’s the rest of us who, on av­er­age, show more rac­ist, trig­ger-hap­py ten­den­cies in situa­t­ions like those cops face. 

But practice re­duces that ten­den­cy, re­search­ers found—sug­gest­ing that for both groups, the com­mon fac­tor may be that train­ing hones judge­ment and tames bi­as.

The re­search­ers re­ported no ev­i­dence that po­lice are any less prej­u­diced per­son­ally than civil­ians. In fact, they said, it was hard to get hon­est an­swers from of­fi­cers about their ra­cial views. “De­spite our as­sur­ances of an­o­nym­ity, sev­er­al of­fi­cers were un­will­ing to com­plete” ques­tion­naires on this, they wrote in a pa­per on the stu­dy. “Others told us, rath­er blunt­ly, that they would not re­spond hon­estly to these sen­si­tive ques­tions.”

None­the­less, com­put­er sim­ula­t­ions found that cops’ choices wheth­er or not to shoot “are less sus­cep­ti­ble to ra­cial bi­as than are the de­ci­sions of com­mun­ity mem­bers,” wrote the re­search­ers, Josh­ua Cor­rell of the Un­ivers­ity of Chi­ca­go and col­leagues, in the June is­sue of the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

Seek­ing to shed light on an is­sue that has caused po­lar­iz­ing and bit­ter de­bates in many U.S. cit­ies af­ter po­lice shoot­ings of un­armed blacks, Cor­rell’s team re­cruited about 260 par­ti­ci­pants for the mul­ti­fac­et­ed stu­dy. Roughly a third, re­spec­tive­ly, were mem­bers of the Den­ver Po­lice De­part­ment; po­lice de­part­ments through­out the Un­ited States; and ci­vil­ian Den­ver res­i­dents.

The re­search­ers sub­jected the group to a bat­tery of tests, in­clud­ing a vi­deogame in which var­i­ous black and white men, armed and un­armed, ap­peared. A play­er had to de­cide as quickly as pos­si­ble wheth­er to shoot or not.

Civil­ians were more “trig­ger-hap­py” than po­lice over­all, and al­so showed sig­nif­i­cant ra­cial bi­as, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found. 

The Den­ver po­lice re­sults were al­so in the di­rec­tion of a slight bi­as, but not quite sta­tis­tic­ally sig­nif­i­cant, they found. And na­tional po­lice showed no bi­as at all—though the re­search­ers not­ed that the sam­ple of these of­fi­cers was­n’t ran­dom. They had been re­cruited from among at­ten­dees at vol­un­tary train­ing sem­i­nars.

Over­all, bi­as in shoot­ing de­ci­sions “was weaker, or even nonex­is­tent,” for cops—most of whom were pa­t­rol officers—com­pared to civil­ians, wrote the re­search­ers.

On the oth­er hand, they found, po­lice showed a re­sid­u­al form of bi­as in which they made de­ci­sions more easily and quickly for tar­gets that matched ra­cial stereo­types. That is, they chose faster to shoot when an armed tar­get was black, and to not shoot when an un­armed tar­get was white. Civil­ians showed a si­m­i­lar ten­den­cy, wrote the re­search­ers.

They al­so found that con­tin­ued prac­tice could re­duce or elim­i­nate the ci­vil­ian bi­as in ul­ti­mate shoot­ing de­ci­sions; but these ef­fects were tem­po­rary, sug­gest­ing it would take in­ten­sive and long-term train­ing to wipe out bi­as per­ma­nent­ly. None­the­less, the find­ing raises the pos­si­bil­ity that the lack of shoot­ing-decision bi­as among the po­lice is a func­tion of train­ing, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

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Scientific evidence lends only weak, or no, support to the popular idea that police shoot unarmed black people more readily than unarmed whites, a new study suggests. Instead, the study turned up a surprise: it’s the rest of us who, on average, show more racist, trigger-happy tendencies in situations like those cops face. But training reduces that tendency, they found—suggesting that for both groups, the common factor may be that training hones judgement and tames bias. The researchers reported no evidence that police are any less prejudiced personally than civilians; indeed, they said, it was hard to get honest answers about officers’ racial views. “Despite our assurances of anonymity, several officers were unwilling to complete” questionnaires on this, they wrote in a paper on the study. “Others told us, rather bluntly, that they would not respond honestly to these sensitive questions.” Nonetheless, computer simulations found that cops’ choices whether or not to shoot “are less susceptible to racial bias than are the decisions of community members,” wrote the researchers, Joshua Correll of the University of Chicago and colleagues, in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Seeking to shed light on an issue that has caused polarizing and bitter debates in many cities after police shootings of unarmed blacks, Correll’s team recruited about 260 participants for the multifaceted study. Roughly a third, respectively, were members of the Denver Police Department; police departments throughout the United States; and civilian Denver residents. The researchers subjected the group to a battery of tests, including a video game in which various black and white men, armed and unarmed, appeared. A player had to decide as quickly as possible whether to shoot or not. Civilians were more “trigger-happy” than police overall, and also showed significant racial bias, the investigators found. The Denver police results were also in the direction of a slight bias, but not quite statistically significant, they found. And national police showed no bias at all—though the researchers noted that the sample of these officers wasn’t random, as they had been recruited from among attendees at voluntary training seminars. Overall, bias in shooting decisions “was weaker, or even nonexistent,” for cops as compared to civilians, wrote the researchers. On the other hand, they found, police showed a residual form of bias in which they made decisions more easily and quickly for targets that matched racial stereotypes. That is, they chose faster to shoot when an armed target was black, and to not shoot when an unarmed target was white. Civilians showed a similar tendency, wrote the researchers. They also found that continued practice could reduce or eliminate the civilian bias in ultimate shooting decisions; but these effects were temporary, suggesting it would take intensive and long-term training to wipe out bias permanently. Nonetheless, the finding raises the possibility that the lack of shooting-decision bias among the police is a function of training, according to the researchers.