Cops, race and violence

The recent death of Michael Brown has elicited strong reactions across the political spectrum—from Bill O’Reilly to Louis Farrakhan—everyone seems to have an opinion on how law enforcement interacts with young black males and the likelihood of black males being shot by cops.

In fact, despite all the opining, there simply are no good data to conclude that the use of deadly force by law enforcement unfairly targets Blacks. While Congress authorized the collection of such information decades ago, it doesn’t exist. Most of today’s discussion is based on surmise and anecdotal incidents and is impossible to generalize from.

Nevertheless, for all too many advocates, even the suggestion that Ferguson was not an open and shut case of police abuse and reflects a nationwide problem are anathema and evidence of bias in itself.

There is an assumption, in no small measure a function of America’s fraught history of police-minority relations that cops harbor suspicion and hostility towards young black males and as a result are prone to be trigger happy and more likely to shoot suspects that fit that profile. Given Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and numerous other cases over the years that conclusion has some anecdotal basis.

Yet, the reality is not only that there are no data to support that assumption, there seems to be new evidence for the exact opposite conclusion—that black suspects are LESS likely to be shot at by cops than either white or Hispanic suspects.

In a surprising conclusion to an ingenious experiment, two researchers at Washington State University have found that “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were involved.”

In the WSU experiment, the participants were asked to shoot a laser gun if he/she thought it appropriate (as opposed to prior experiments where there was a “shoot” button) as they faced a suspect in a realistic simulation of a confrontation. The experiment ran through 60 scenarios from real life encounters projected in life size videos. The experimenters controlled for variables such as suspect clothing, hand positions, threatening stance and race while providing exact data on response times, etc.

The study concluded that “participants were more likely to shoot white and Hispanic suspects than black suspects.” There was a significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned. When confronted by an armed white person, participants took an average of 1.37 seconds to fire back. Confronted by an armed black person, they took 1.61 seconds to fire and were less likely to fire in error. The 24-millesecond difference may seem small, but it’s enough to be fatal in a shooting.

Clearly, the study is subject to doubters who will question the laboratory setting, the fact that the participants reflected the general population and not just police officers, etc. Nevertheless, the findings of this study are startling—the bias when it comes to shoot or not shoot seems to tilt in favor of black suspects, not against them.

This study and its precursor experiment by the same authors, Lois James and Bryan Vila, should give ardent cop critics some pause.

Also of interest from this study is that the disinclination to shoot at black suspects was among a cohort of participants who “demonstrated significantly greater threat responses against black suspects than white or Hispanic suspects.” This suggested to the authors that even though the participants “held unconscious biases associating blacks and threats” that did not translate into acting out those biases.

In fact, the authors note, that the participants’ greater fear of black suspects “could cause him or her to tend to take more time to make decisions to shoot people whom they subconsciously perceived as more threatening because of race or ethnicity. This behavioral ‘counter-bias’ might be rooted in people’s concerns about the social and legal consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial or ethnic group.”

This latter finding has profound implications beyond the police setting. The “unconscious bias” and the “implicit bias test” proponents who purport to have insight into the bigotry and stereotyping that animates us at the unconscious level (these are the new touchstones of those who argue that “society hasn’t changed, bigotry has just gone underground”) are now severely challenged. This study reveals that no matter what we may unconsciously assume (e.g. young black males are a larger threat than others) those inchoate thoughts may not promote hostile acts but may, in fact, temper our actions in a positive way.

This study, although only one, reveals, once again, how complex and fraught the field of police-citizen interactions and inter-group relations are. There are no simple answers, no obvious causal links that can be easily drawn; people are complex and their motivations equally so.

Patience, facts and more study should guide us all in this difficult area.