Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot

Sadler, M. S., Correll, J., Park, B., & Judd, C. M. (2012). The world is not black and white: Racial bias in the decision to shoot in a multiethnic context. Journal of Social Issues, 68(2), 286-313.

As compared with White criminal suspects, Black suspects are overrepresented among those shot and killed by police officers. Record keeping methods make it difficult to assess these rates for Asians and Latino/as, groups are expected to increase significantly in the U. S. population in the coming decades. According to Sadler and colleagues, many factors may influence the tendency of officers to view Black suspects as a greater threat, including neighborhood crime rates. However, studies show that race alone can influence decisions to shoot. In most simulated shoot/don’t shoot studies, Black and White male stimulus persons appear on a screen holding either a gun or a nonthreatening object, such as a phone. The participant must decide as quickly as possible, whether they should shoot. In previous studies, both Black and White students and police officers reacted more quickly to a Black stimulus person, but the police officers were able to overcome their bias and were no more likely to shoot the Black than the White stimulus person. In studies with college students and police officers as participants, the authors measured both the reaction time and the number of correct responses to armed and unarmed Black, White, Latino, and Asian male stimulus persons. Additional data about intergroup attitudes and community characteristics were collected from the police officers. These studies are the first to investigate reactions to a Latino or Asian stimulus person using the shoot/don’t shoot scenario. Results showed that student participants were more likely to choose the “shoot” response over the “don’t shoot” response when the target was Black, rather than a member of other racial/ethnic groups and both students and officers were faster to “shoot” a Black armed stimulus person than a White, Latino, or Asian armed stimulus person. Officers were also faster to “shoot” Latinos than Whites or Asians and faster to “shoot” Whites as compared with Asians. The officers’ personal stereotypes and perceptions of crime rates in neighborhoods associated with each race/ethnicity were also related to reaction time. Despite differences in reaction time, there was no evidence that the stimulus person’s race/ethnicity influenced officers’ ability to correctly “shoot” the armed stimulus person and not shoot the unarmed stimulus person. However, the authors noted that their simulation differs from real life situations in terms of response window, distractions, physical threat, and the possibility that an officer’s behavior may unintentionally escalate a conflict due to race/ethnicity- or neighborhood-based expectations.

Making Connections

External validity
Sensation and perception
Signal detection theory

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