Study Contradicts Perception Police More Trigger Happy in Black Communities

By Matthew Harwood, Staff Editor

A new study has found that police officers are less affected by racial bias when determining when to shoot black men than the overall community.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, by a team of researchers discovered that when deciding when to shoot or not shoot "community respondents set the decision criteria lower for Black targets than for White targets (indicating bias), police officers did not."

The experiment was conducted by showing respondents 100 images of men -- 50 were white and 50 were black and half were  armed and half were unarmed but holding everyday items such as a cell phone -- in a video game simulation and told to press a button "don't shoot" when a target was unarmed, and press a button "shoot" when a target was armed.

Police made the right decision when not to pull the trigger more often: they shot 13 percent of the unarmed men, regardless of race, while the community shot 35 percent of unarmed black targets and 29 percent of unarmed white targets.

Police respondents were recruited from the Denver Police Department and a national training seminar for officers while community respondents were recruited by using Denver's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office.

Nevertheless, the study found racial bias still is pervasive. While community members were more "trigger happy" regarding black targets, all samples set a lower criteria of when to shoot black targets as opposed to white targets.

In spite of the fact that police showed minimal bias in the SDT [signal detection theory] analysis, the officers were similar to the community sample (and to literally hundreds of past participants in this paradigm) in the manifestation of robust racial bias in the speed with which they made shoot/don’t-shoot decisions. Accurate responses to targets congruent with culturally prevalent stereotypes (i.e., armed Black targets and unarmed White targets) required less time than did responses to stereotype-incongruent targets (i.e., unarmed Black targets and armed White targets).

As the authors note, the study is important because high-profile shootings of unarmed black men have deleterious impact on community relations between the black community and the police leading to widespread distrust of police and conflict. Studies such as this show that police are less affected by race than recent shootings of unarmed black men suggest.




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