fbpx

Cops Hesitate More, Err Less When Shooting Black Suspects, Study Finds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

With the turmoil in Ferguson (MO) the latest example, activists and many reporters would have us believe that police officers are prejudicially trigger happy when dealing with black suspects.

But a scientific study from Washington State University-Spokane suggests just the opposite.

In truth, according to findings from the research team’s innovative experiments:

  • Officers were less likely to erroneously shoot unarmed black suspects than they were unarmed whites–25 times less likely, in fact;
  • And officers hesitated significantly longer before shooting armed suspects who were black, compared to armed subjects who were white or Hispanic.

“In sum,” writes Dr. Lois James, a research assistant professor with the university’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology who headed the study, “this research found that participants displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects” in their shooting decisions.

OLD VIEW

In the past, based largely on incident report analyses and simplistic laboratory experiments, various researchers have concluded that in making deadly force decisions police are strongly influenced by the race or ethnicity of suspects, “independent of criminality.”

In the 1970s, this perspective was memorably captured in one researcher’s statement that “the police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks.” Another claimed that the “disproportionate” number of police shootings of blacks (according to DOJ figures, they are four times more likely to be shot by police than whites) “strongly suggests racial discrimination on a national basis” in law enforcement.

But James points out that it is difficult if not impossible to ferret out racial bias as a decisive factor in shootings from the incomplete and occasionally questionably accurate information included in most incident reports. And the laboratory experiments suggesting bias, she says, commonly “bear almost no resemblance” to real-life deadly force encounters.

For example, a typical research method has involved subjects sitting before a computer and viewing flash pictures of black and white “suspects” paired with weapons or “neutral objects” such as wallets or cell phones. The subjects must respond to these images by pressing “shoot” or “don’t shoot” buttons. Racial bias is then inferred by whether participants are “consistently quicker to shoot armed suspects of a particular race” and by whether decision errors tend to be greater for one race than for the other.

This process lacks what James calls “external validity”; that is, it doesn’t come close to reflecting real-world circumstances, and thus its conclusions are of limited value. “[T]he complex process involved” in deciding to shoot or not shoot and then actually firing a gun is “dramatically different” from the simple reflex of pressing a button, she writes.

Her study involved a more sophisticated, “immersive” approach.

ENHANCED TESTING

Along with civilians and military personnel who were tested independently, 36 patrol officers and deputies from the Spokane area, all of them white and most of them male, were selected as volunteer subjects for her research. They ranged in age from 31 to 43 and had at least five years on the job.

Armed with a Glock 21 modified to fire a laser beam, the officers one at a time were exposed to a series of at least 10 “highly realistic and arousing” scenarios in a high-definition deadly force judgment and decision-making simulator in WSU’s Simulated Hazardous Operational Tasks laboratory. The equipment permitted precise determination of shot placement and millisecond measurement of shot timing after a threat appeared.

The life-sized scenarios were randomly screened from a pool of 60 one- to two-minute episodes based on actual encounters in which officers have been killed or assaulted. They were filmed in “naturalistic” environments and included disturbance calls, arrest situations, crimes in progress, suspicious person investigations, and traffic stops–the biggest killers of cops. They ranged in “situational difficulty” from “intermediate” to “journeyman,” depending on variables such as the number of people involved, the speed at which action unfolds, and suspect demeanor, intoxication, and deceptive behavior.

Black, white, and Hispanic suspects appeared in the scenarios proportional to their involvement in actual attacks on officers, as compiled in FBI statistics. Suspects were unarmed in about a third of the scenarios.

The key responses that the researchers tested were reaction time and shooting “errors” (in this case, shooting unarmed individuals or failing to shoot armed suspects).

James emphasizes that the officer participants had no reason to believe they were being tested for racial or ethnic bias. The issue of suspect race or ethnicity was not raised during the officers’ preparation, and no Ferguson-like, racially charged event was recently in the news that might have overly sensitized them to that concern.

UNEXPECTED RESULTS

Given the prevailing stereotype that cops are unduly harsh toward black suspects, James acknowledges that the outcome of the experiments was “unexpected.”

Reaction time

Her findings reveal that officers took “significantly longer” before they shot black suspects than white suspects. Civilians and soldiers in the study also took longer to shoot blacks, but the hesitation by officers was roughly twice as long as that of the civilians. The delay before shooting was particularly noticeable in the most complex scenarios.

In contrast, there was “no significant difference in reaction time between shooting Hispanic suspects and White suspects,” James reports.

“Our primary finding that participants were more hesitant to shoot Black suspects than White or Hispanic suspects is in direct contrast to prior experimental findings that participants are significantly quicker to shoot Black suspects,” she writes.

Decision errors

Where officers made errors in James’s study, they were “less likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed White suspects,” she writes. Indeed, “we calculated that participants were 25 times less likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than they were to shoot unarmed White suspects.” Again, this was a significantly greater multiple than was recorded for other groups in the study.

Unarmed suspects were most likely to be shot in journeyman scenarios (the most difficult), and there was “no significant difference between the likelihood of shooting unarmed Hispanic suspects and unarmed White suspects,” the researchers found.

Moreover, the officers did not fail to shoot armed white suspects any more frequently than they failed to shoot threatening suspects who were black or Hispanic.

“These findings are also in direct contrast to [earlier researchers] who found that participants were more likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects and fail to shoot armed White suspects,” James noted.

These results revealed that racial bias did exist in the officers’ reactions to the scenarios, James writes–“but in the opposite direction that would be expected from prior experimental studies.” Her tests “showed significant evidence of bias favoring Black suspects, rather than discriminating against them.”

A “potential explanation,” she speculates, may be a “behavioral ‘counter-bias’ ” or “administrative effect”; that is, an extra caution by officers against impulsive reactions to black suspects because of “real-world concern over discipline, liability, or public disapproval.”

[Although not relevant to the researchers’ primary concerns, James’ team also recorded something that was not surprising: Compared to the civilian volunteers, “police and military participants had better shooting accuracy, fired faster follow-on shots, were far more interactive with the scenarios (for example, shouting at suspects: ‘drop your weapon or I will shoot!’), and had superior command presence….”]

FUTURE RESEARCH

James considers her research to be a pilot study and as such she plans to expand it numerically and geographically before feeling confident that the findings can be extrapolated to sworn law enforcement generally. In work that is already underway, she hopes among other things to investigate whether this finding is replicated across larger and more diverse law enforcement samples, and if so, to “determine whether bias favoring Black suspects is a consequence of administrative measures (e.g., education, training, policies, and laws), and identify the cognitive processes that underlie this phenomenon.”

Meanwhile, the existing study, published in print last year under the title “Results from experimental trials testing participant responses to White, Hispanic and Black suspects in high-fidelity deadly force judgment and decision-making simulations,” can be accessed in full for a fee at the website of the Journal of Experimental Criminology. Click here to go there.

James can be reached at: lois_james@wsu.edu. Joining her in conducting the study were two other WSU PhDs, Dr. Bryan Vila and Dr. Kenn Daratha.

Leave a Reply

GDPR

  • Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy

Effective date: January 06, 2019

Force Science Institute, Ltd. (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the https://www.forcescience.org/ website (hereinafter referred to as the “Service”).

This page informs you of our policies regarding the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data when you use our Service and the choices you have associated with that data. Our Privacy Policy for Force Science Institute, Ltd. is based on the Privacy Policy Template from Privacy Policies.

We use your data to provide and improve the Service. By using the Service, you agree to the collection and use of information in accordance with this policy. Unless otherwise defined in this Privacy Policy, the terms used in this Privacy Policy have the same meanings as in our Terms and Conditions, accessible from https://www.forcescience.org/

Information Collection And Use

We collect several different types of information for various purposes to provide and improve our Service to you.

Types of Data Collected

Personal Data

While using our Service, we may ask you to provide us with certain personally identifiable information that can be used to contact or identify you (“Personal Data”). Personally identifiable information may include, but is not limited to:

  • Email address
  • First name and last name
  • Phone number
  • Address, State, Province, ZIP/Postal code, City
  • Cookies and Usage Data

Usage Data

We may also collect information on how the Service is accessed and used (“Usage Data”). This Usage Data may include information such as your computer’s Internet Protocol address (e.g. IP address), browser type, browser version, the pages of our Service that you visit, the time and date of your visit, the time spent on those pages, unique device identifiers and other diagnostic data.

Tracking & Cookies Data

We use cookies and similar tracking technologies to track the activity on our Service and hold certain information.

Cookies are files with small amount of data which may include an anonymous unique identifier. Cookies are sent to your browser from a website and stored on your device. Tracking technologies also used are beacons, tags, and scripts to collect and track information and to improve and analyze our Service.

You can instruct your browser to refuse all cookies or to indicate when a cookie is being sent. However, if you do not accept cookies, you may not be able to use some portions of our Service. You can learn more how to manage cookies in the Browser Cookies Guide.

Examples of Cookies we use:

  • Session Cookies. We use Session Cookies to operate our Service.
  • Preference Cookies. We use Preference Cookies to remember your preferences and various settings.
  • Security Cookies. We use Security Cookies for security purposes.

Use of Data

Force Science Institute, Ltd. uses the collected data for various purposes:

  • To provide and maintain the Service
  • To notify you about changes to our Service
  • To allow you to participate in interactive features of our Service when you choose to do so
  • To provide customer care and support
  • To provide analysis or valuable information so that we can improve the Service
  • To monitor the usage of the Service
  • To detect, prevent and address technical issues

Transfer Of Data

Your information, including Personal Data, may be transferred to — and maintained on — computers located outside of your state, province, country or other governmental jurisdiction where the data protection laws may differ than those from your jurisdiction.

If you are located outside United States and choose to provide information to us, please note that we transfer the data, including Personal Data, to United States and process it there.

Your consent to this Privacy Policy followed by your submission of such information represents your agreement to that transfer.

Force Science Institute, Ltd. will take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that your data is treated securely and in accordance with this Privacy Policy and no transfer of your Personal Data will take place to an organization or a country unless there are adequate controls in place including the security of your data and other personal information.

Disclosure Of Data

Legal Requirements

Force Science Institute, Ltd. may disclose your Personal Data in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to:

  • To comply with a legal obligation
  • To protect and defend the rights or property of Force Science Institute, Ltd.
  • To prevent or investigate possible wrongdoing in connection with the Service
  • To protect the personal safety of users of the Service or the public
  • To protect against legal liability

Security Of Data

The security of your data is important to us, but remember that no method of transmission over the Internet, or method of electronic storage is 100% secure. While we strive to use commercially acceptable means to protect your Personal Data, we cannot guarantee its absolute security.

Service Providers

We may employ third party companies and individuals to facilitate our Service (“Service Providers”), to provide the Service on our behalf, to perform Service-related services or to assist us in analyzing how our Service is used.

These third parties have access to your Personal Data only to perform these tasks on our behalf and are obligated not to disclose or use it for any other purpose.

Analytics

We may use third-party Service Providers to monitor and analyze the use of our Service.

  • Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. Google uses the data collected to track and monitor the use of our Service. This data is shared with other Google services. Google may use the collected data to contextualize and personalize the ads of its own advertising network.You can opt-out of having made your activity on the Service available to Google Analytics by installing the Google Analytics opt-out browser add-on. The add-on prevents the Google Analytics JavaScript (ga.js, analytics.js, and dc.js) from sharing information with Google Analytics about visits activity.For more information on the privacy practices of Google, please visit the Google Privacy & Terms web page: https://policies.google.com/privacy?hl=en

Links To Other Sites

Our Service may contain links to other sites that are not operated by us. If you click on a third party link, you will be directed to that third party’s site. We strongly advise you to review the Privacy Policy of every site you visit.

We have no control over and assume no responsibility for the content, privacy policies or practices of any third party sites or services.

Children’s Privacy

Our Service does not address anyone under the age of 18 (“Children”).

We do not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from anyone under the age of 18. If you are a parent or guardian and you are aware that your Children has provided us with Personal Data, please contact us. If we become aware that we have collected Personal Data from children without verification of parental consent, we take steps to remove that information from our servers.

Changes To This Privacy Policy

We may update our Privacy Policy from time to time. We will notify you of any changes by posting the new Privacy Policy on this page.

We will let you know via email and/or a prominent notice on our Service, prior to the change becoming effective and update the “effective date” at the top of this Privacy Policy.

You are advised to review this Privacy Policy periodically for any changes. Changes to this Privacy Policy are effective when they are posted on this page.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, please contact us:

  • By email: support@forcescience.org
  • By visiting this page on our website: https://www.forcescience.org/contact
  • By phone number: 866-683-1944
  • By mail: Force Science Institute, Ltd.