Perceptual Biases in Policing

There have been a number of incidents where unarmed Black men have been shot by White police officers. These incidents have led to a number of assumptions, up to and including the suggestion that policing in America is racist. While this deduction is clearly unsubstantiated, the issue does warrant closer examination.

Recent data indicate that Black males are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White males. A 2017 research article, “Racial Bias in Judgements of Physical Size and Formidability: From Size to Threat,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, addresses why some of these events may have occurred. The article suggests that Black men are stereotyped as threating, which may be causing a disproportionate targeting by police even when the victim is unarmed. Prior research suggests a stereotype of young Black men as physically threatening, less innocent, and perhaps even physically “superhuman.” These stereotypes may create conditions where the police officer has a distorted perception of a Black man’s physical size and formidability. The officer may perceive danger when, in fact, none exists. These perceptions have been demonstrated in shooting simulations where unarmed Black men were shot.

This research also found that people have a predisposition to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically threatening (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men. This can easily be seen in the differences of the physical descriptions given by police officers who have shot unarmed Black males and the descriptions in the medical examiners’ findings. Furthermore, research conducted in 1982 suggests that racial differences in formidability judgments are a product of bias rather than accuracy. Biased formidability judgments in turn promoted participants’ justifications of hypothetical use of force against Black suspects of crime. Thus, perceivers appear to integrate multiple pieces of information to ultimately conclude that young Black men are more physically threatening than young White men, and, therefore, must be controlled using more aggressive measures.

An interesting twist: this research was not conducted using police officers. It was conducted using randomly selected White males and White females. Considering that 80% of police officers in the United States are White, and the hiring process for police officers selects “out” candidates and does not select “in” candidates, the individuals used in this research are actually representative of a police officer.

This research suggests that police officers commonly make decisions to shoot, not on whether the suspect was armed, but based on how large and physically formidable they perceive the suspect, and how this formidability may translate into potential danger.

I was still a patrol officer in 1982 when a research article was published that identified a bias in perceptions for physical formidability and threat posed by Black men and boys. I was never exposed to this physical formidability information in any in-service training, nor in any command decision training as a police chief, nor in any training materials as a field training officer or as a police academy instructor. The last basic police academy class I taught was in 2016. This poses a series of questions, like what happened to this data? Has this information ever been reviewed for use in a training format? In this day and age of interactive police training, has this bias been built into training scenarios? Has this information made it out of the academic journals and into the real world of police training? Why are we not using this information to better police training?

For the most part, I find theoretical research in criminal justice generally and in policing specifically as simply an academic exercise (and I have been there and done that). These findings on size and formidability as they relate to threat perception should be integrated into police training at all levels. This clearly has the potential to reduce officer involved shootings based on a racial bias.

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