There are few places in our culture today in which unconscious bias plays a more important role than in law enforcement.  A significant number of highly publicized events in the recent past (e.g. Ferguson, MO, Cinncinati, OH, Chicago, IL, Baltimore, MD) have created a national conversation about the influence of bias on the interaction between police officers and the people they encounter on the street, especially African Americans.  And for good reason.  The data is confronting:

  • African Americans are 3.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.[1]
  • African Americans are 4 times more likely to experience the use of force during police encounters than Whites.[2]
  • If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as Whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by 50%.[3]
  • African American men are 6.5 times as likely to be imprisoned as Whites, and African American women are 3 times as likely to be imprisoned as Whites.[4]

And, of course, that is only one part of the puzzle.  While the focus of this attention has, understandably, been on preventing harm toward people from the police, the impact can come in the opposite direction as well.  The collection of these events has often left law enforcement officers with negative biases towards them in the aftermath.

As a result of this, the phenomenon of bias that occurs everyday, both conscious and unconscious is being studied in many aspects of the criminal justice system, particularly in law enforcement.


Key Elements of Approach

Any discussion about bias must start with an understanding of how the human mind makes decisions.  Current social science and neurocognitive science research shows that we make decisions very quickly, based on inherent decision-making patterns of the mind (heuristics) that often rely on stereotypes and other forms of bias to quickly decide for us what we should do, specifically in situations in which we feel threatened.  In fact, we now know that the greater the sense of threat, the more likely we are to make these fast-brain decisions.  We also have likely developed beliefs and attitudes about certain groups of people that can lead to assumptions about expected behavior, and interpretations of behavior as either positive or negative.


Studies on “Shooter Bias”

We have been besieged with media stories about the disparate treatment of people of color by police:  excessive force; racial profiling; slower response times, just to name a few.  None, however, raises more concern than a police shooting, particularly when it involves a white police officer and black suspect.  Are these shootings always influenced by bias? Implicit bias researchers have examined this topic and the results are mixed; sometimes police officers show the same bias as civilian participants, and sometimes officers show less.


In 2005, Florida State University researchers E. Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche conducted a study utilizing 50 certified police patrol officers who participated in computer-simulated “shoot—don’t shoot” scenarios.  The officers were predominantly white males, but participants also involved female, black, Native American, and Hispanic officers.  During the test, pictures of faces with either a gun or a neutral object superimposed over each were shown in various positions on a screen. If the suspect and a gun were pictured, the officers were to shoot. If the suspect and some other object were pictured (for example, a wallet, a cellphone, and so on), the officers were to chose the “don’t shoot” option. The “suspects” pictured were both black and white college-age males.


The researchers said the following about the results of the study:

“The current work examined police officers’ decisions to shoot Black and White criminal suspects in a computer simulation. Responses to the simulation revealed that upon initial exposure to the program, the officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed Black compared with unarmed White suspects.”[5]

A more recent study seems to demonstrate that this is less a function of the individual bias of police officers, and more a function of the situation itself. University of Chicago researcher Josh Correll conducted another similar study on shooter bias which tested both officers and civilians and found that, in fact, the officers were less likely to be influenced by racial bias than the civilians who participated:  “Like community members, police were slower to make correct decisions when faced with an unarmed black man or an armed white man…Community members showed a clear tendency to favor the shoot response for black targets. Police, however…showed greater discriminability and a less trigger-happy orientation in general (i.e., for both black and white targets).” [6]


Correll went on to say, “We don’t mean to conclude that this is conclusive evidence that there is no racial bias in police officers’ decision to shoot.  But we’ve run these test with thousands of people now, and we’ve never seen this ability to restrain behavior in any group other than police officers.”[7]


Taken together, these studies seem to indicate that police officers showed no more bias than their civilian counterparts and, in fact, may show less.  But, of course, few civilians are regularly put into the position to test this theory, while for police officers this may happen at any moment.



What do we do about it?

So what can we do?  Systemically this means increasing the diversity of the workforce so that police departments more reflect the demographics of the communities that they serve.  This both communicates a more inclusive message to the civilian population, and also tends to help police departments develop a better understanding of the communities they are serving.  This can also be supported through efforts at community policing efforts which promote more positive interactions between the police and the community, enhancing trust, and reducing the tendency to stereotype either side. In addition, police officers can be educated to understand their bias and learn ways to mitigate it.  But education is not enough.  We have to also develop structures and systems within police departments that support officers and administrators in making for mindful decisions, and accountability measures that allow us to rigorously track how successful we are being..


There are few places where our willingness to explore our biases and create strategies to learn to mitigate them can be more impactful.  Its way past time to create ways in which law enforcement can be supported in doing their jobs with integrity and safety.


[1] Criminal Law Reform Project of ACLU (New York) 2014

[2] Center for American Progress (Washington DC) 2015

[3] NAACP (Baltimore)

[4] Yale Law School; Center for American Progress 2015

[5] E. Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche, “The Consequences of Race for Police Officers’ Responses to Criminal Suspects,” Psychological Science 16, no. 3 (2005): 180–183.

[6] Joshua Correll et al., “Across the Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 6 (2007): 1006–1023.

[7] Benedict Carey, “Study Finds Police Training Plays Key Role in Shootings,” New York Times, June 2, 2007, (accessed August 16, 2011).