Does race matter when cops pull the trigger?

At the center of every high-profile controversy on race and police, there’s one big question: Does the race of a suspect matter when cops use deadly force?

From Ferguson to just recently in Pasco, it’s a question that comes up again and again.

When Officer Darren Wilson spoke to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about Michael Brown, he was asked directly, would he have done anything differently if Brown had been white?

“No,” he said.

But in the wake of Ferguson, cops and police departments across the country are starting to pay more attention to what science has to say about racial bias. And some new research has yielded surprising results about what goes on in a cop’s head when he pulls a trigger.

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Realistic scenarios were filmed with white, black and hispanic actors. Credit: Washington State University

Everyone Has Implicit Bias

It’s called implicit bias, and it’s not the same as outright racism. It’s far more subtle and found even in people that don’t think they’re biased. Study after study has confirmed these biases, including MRI research that found photos of black faces trigger a response in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with fear.

FBI Director James Comey just gave a major speech encouraging police departments to confront their own implicit biases.

“Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face,” he said.

The concern, of course, is that individual racial biases can creep into how cops enforce the law.

“Maybe their biases lead them to see someone and think they’re suspicious when they would not think the same thing of another demographic,” said Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. “Maybe that leads them to conduct a search, a stop and frisk, treat them poorly.”

How Does Bias Affect Use of Deadly Force?

But on the question of deadly force in particular, social scientists are tackling the question with experimental research.

There have been a number of studies that use shoot/don’t shoot buttons to test how cops respond to video game-style images of white and black men holding weapons or objects like cell phones. Those studies have found that cops are faster to identify a weapon when it’s held by a black suspect.

But that experimental design has been eclipsed by a new project at Washington State University in Spokane, where researchers have built a million-dollar lab that can test cops’ biases in far more realistic settings.

They filmed 60 different scenarios based on 30 years of deadly-force encounters, filming them with white, black and Hispanic actors as suspects. The scenarios include traffic stops where cops have to figure out if someone is pulling out a gun or a wallet, and domestic violence calls that turn deadly, with a suspect taking aim at a woman before firing at the officer.

“If it’s not realistic, then we’re not really providing any information for what it’s like for officers on the street,” said Lois James, an assistant research professor at WSU who helps lead the study.

Cops and other test subjects see these scenarios projected onto a life-size screen, and they have to decide whether force is required, using a modified glock that shoots a laser beam instead of a bullet. The lab can track the moment shots are fired, where they hit, and even a cop’s brain activity to determine whether or not they feel threatened.

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Participants’ brain activity is also monitored to give researchers insight into how threat responses relate to behavior. Credit: Bradley Blackburn

The Results: Cops Can Control Their Biases

The lab has published two papers based on pilot research. While the results are early and limited, they are surprising. Cops do have biases, but it did not affect their behavior the way you might expect.

“Participants do seem to have implicit associations between African American suspects and threat, however the more unusual finding is that this does not even remotely predict how they’ll behave in the simulator,” James said. “What we’ve found in the simulator is that there tends to be a greater hesitation to shoot African American suspects than white or Hispanic suspects.”

On average, she said, they took a quarter of a second longer to pull the trigger on black suspects, and they made fewer mistakes. The researchers theorize cops could be exhibiting a kind of a counter-bias, responding to real-world concerns about race.

“If an unarmed suspect is shot, they’re more likely to be a white unarmed suspect than a black unarmed suspect,” she said.

Lois and her colleagues acknowledge that far more research needs to be done. The experiment needs replication, and it needs to be expanded with a broader pool of officers that are not from the Pacific Northwest. It also cannot address how implicit bias may affect other parts of policing, like whether to pull someone over or perform a search.

Using Research to Improve Training

But it is part of a broad field of science that cops and police chiefs are closely monitoring and using to improve their training. Experts say that when cops learn about the science of implicit bias, it can help them control their behavior.

That’s the idea a seminar called ‘Fair and Impartial Policing’ that’s backed by the Department of Justice and created by Lorie Fridell. It’s been taught in 250 different departments across the country, training officers to recognize and manage their own biases.

“It stops shaking the finger at [police],” Fridell said. “The worst thing that’s said in the training is that you’re human like everybody else. Let’s talk about how your mind works.

Producer: Brandon Chase

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