The Latest on Policing Bias

By Jason Marsh | May 27, 2010 | 0 comments

A task force finds evidence of unconscious racial bias among law enforcement--and makes recommendations to curb it.

The New York Times reports today on the conclusions of a task force charged with determining whether racial bias played a role in scores of police shootings over the last few decades, particularly those where an officer mistakenly shot a colleague. There have been a few high profile case of mistaken-identity, police-on-police shootings in recent years, with perhaps the best-known case being that of Omar Edwards, an African-American NYC off-duty police officer shot by an on-duty colleague last spring.

The new <a href=“”><i>Greater Good</i> book</a> on racial bias, coming this summer from Beacon Press. The new Greater Good book on racial bias, coming this summer from Beacon Press.

The task force delivered its report to New York Governor David Patterson this week, and on the question of race in these shootings, its verdict is clear: “Inherent or unconscious racial bias plays a role in ‘shoot/don’t-shoot,’ decisions made by officers of all races and ethnicities.”

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed recent research on racial bias, particularly studies from psychology and neuroscience. As we’ve reported many times in Greater Good, most notably in our issue on racial bias (which is being published in expanded form as a book this summer), these studies have repeatedly shown that almost everyone is subject to knee-jerk biases against those in certain stigmatized groups, especially racial and ethnic minorities. These biases are different than outright, overt racism. They’re more immediate, and less obvious to our conscious minds—and thus more insidious and harder to guard against.

As Alex Dixon writes in his Greater Good article on the subject:

Findings like these suggest to researchers that the brain is wired to respond quickly to possible threats, and in American culture at least, people may have been socially conditioned to see black male faces as one of these threats. This process can even affect people who consciously shun racial bias in any form, police officers who swear to uphold the law without prejudice, and people of color themselves. “Unless one is socially isolated, it is not possible to avoid acquiring evaluations of social groups,” [NYU neuroscientist Elizabeth] Phelps has written. “Yet such evaluations can affect behavior in subtle and often unintentional ways.”

For police, researchers fear, this phenomenon might have fatal consequences, perhaps making them more likely to pull the trigger when they see a black suspect, especially when they think their own life could be on the line.

The new task force report backs up those fears.

So what can we do about this?

The report offers nine recommendations for local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Among them are to test more often for racial bias among police officers, something that New York has started to do in the wake of the Edwards shooting.

Dixon’s article suggests that in addition to testing officers for bias, it might be more effective to teach them about the prevalence of these biases and how to guard against them. One way to do this is to have officers “engage in simulations in which they must make snap judgments about suspects, then step back and review how those judgments may have been swayed by the suspects’ race.”

Dixon also cites the importance of the “contact hypothesis,” the idea that “if someone has positive experiences with members of another racial or ethnic group, that person is less apt to be prejudiced.” A 2006 study by Florida State University psychologists Michelle Peruche and Ashby Plant supports this idea: It found that officers who reported having positive contact with black people were less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects in a computer simulation than were officers who had negative attitudes toward black people.

No doubt that it will take more research, more task forces like the one in New York, and, in all unfortunate likelihood, more tragic incidents like the Edwards case before additional safeguards against racial bias are identified and embraced. But New York state’s recognition of the problem is certainly an important step forward. Let’s see how the state, and other jurisdictions, act on the task force’s recommendations.

For more on the science of racial bias—and its practical applications—check out the forthcoming Greater Good book on the subject, Are We Born Racist?, to be published this summer by Beacon Press.

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About The Author

Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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