Studying Possible Race Bias in Officer-Involved Shootings

What can social psychology teach about officer-involved shootings?

Posted Oct 22, 2018

Social psychology has always tried to address difficult social problems. Early in the history of the field, many psychologists studied topics like obedience and diffusion of responsibility, motivated by the observation that many German citizens who were not evil people still participated in the Nazi genocide during World War II.

Over the past few decades, social psychologists have examined aspects of racial bias. One area in which race bias is particularly dangerous is in officer-involved shootings. There have been many high-profile cases in which police officers have shot Black men who turned out to have been unarmed. Social psychologists have tried to understand the factors that might contribute to these shootings.

One task that is used in studies like this is the First Person Shooter Task in which participants see a sequence of images one of which contains a picture of a person who is or is not holding a gun. Often, the people pictured are all men. Participants have to decide as quickly as possible whether to shoot the individual using one of two response buttons. Generally, the study varies the race of the individual pictured as well as whether that person has a gun.

A typical finding from studies with this procedure involving college undergraduates is that participants are more likely to shoot an unarmed Black man than an unarmed White man. They are about equally likely to shoot an armed White man and an armed Black man. This finding suggests that there is a bias to shoot unarmed Black men.

An interesting paper in the October 2018 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Johnson, Joseph Cesario, and Timothy Pleskac looked at this task in more detail to address some limitations. First, as instructive as it is to study college undergraduates, the population of most interest is police officers. The researchers looked both at college students and trained officers.

Second, in most typical police situations, the dispatcher provides information about the case before the officer arrives. Dispatchers provide information about where to go, but typically also what is happening, who is involved, and whether there is a weapon involved. The identifying information about the person typically includes race information.

In the modified task studied in this paper, before each trial, participants were told whether to look for a White or Black man. They were told this information would always be accurate (as it is typically accurate in real dispatches). They were also given information about whether the suspect was armed. Participants were told this information would generally be accurate, but would not always be accurate. In fact, on 75% of trials in which participants were told the suspect was armed, they were not armed. On 25% of trials in which participants were told the suspect was not armed, they were armed.

One study contrasted the case in which people got no information prior to the trial (to match up to previous research) and the modified task with the dispatch information.

In the “no dispatch” case, college undergrads showed the same pattern as previous studies. They were more likely to shoot an unarmed Black man than an unarmed White man with no race difference for the armed men. The trained police officers showed no significant evidence of racial bias. They were slightly more likely to shoot unarmed Black men than unarmed White men, but this difference was not significant.

With the dispatch information, this pattern changed for both groups. In this case, both the students and the trained officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot someone when they were told that the person was armed and they were, in fact, unarmed than when they were told the person was unarmed and they were unarmed. That is, the bias in these data was not based on race, but on whether the dispatch information suggested the presence of a weapon.

A second study in this paper obtained the same pattern of results about the biasing influence of information for both college students and trained officers.

These studies suggest that race alone does not bias the likelihood that a trained officer will decide to shoot a suspect. To be clear, that does not mean that there is no bias in policing—only that the explanation for officer-involved shootings of unarmed Black men may not be that officers are more likely to decide to shoot a Black man than a White one.

There are still many factors that could lead to bias in the number of officer-involved shootings. For example, the researchers point out that there is not a lot of data on dispatch calls that have been analyzed. It is possible that dispatchers are more likely to include information about a weapon when sending police to investigate a Black suspect than a White one. It is possible that people reporting crimes to 911 may be more likely to mention a gun for Black suspects than for White ones.

Both of these factors would lead to more situations in Black men are put a risk to be shot by the police, because there is a bias to shoot a suspect who is believed to be armed.

The reason why research like this is important is that the police would like to eliminate all unnecessary shootings. And they would particularly like to remove sources of bias in the victims of officer-involved shootings. In order to improve police procedures, though, it is important to understand the psychological factors that drive errors.

References

Johnson, D.J., Cesario, J. & Pleskac, T.J. (2018). How prior information and police experience affect decisions to shoot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(4), 601-623.