The conventional thinking about police-involved shootings, and some scientific research, has been that black suspects are more likely to be shot than white suspects because of an implicit racial bias among police officers. But now a new study has found exactly the opposite: even with white officers who do have racial biases, officers are three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.
The results come from a laboratory project at Washington State University using highly realistic police simulators, in which actors in various scenarios approach and respond to officers on large, high-definition video screens in an attempt to recreate critical situations on the street. The officers are equipped with real guns, modified to fire infrared beams rather than bullets, and the scenarios can branch into conflict or cooperation, depending on the officers’ words and actions.
It’s the third time researchers at Washington State — Lois James, Stephen M. James and Bryan J. Vila — have set up simulations to monitor the differing reactions of police when confronted by white or black suspects. And all three times, they found that officers took significantly more time to fire their weapons if the subject was black, according to their latest report, “The Reverse Racism Effect,” to be published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy. […]
In two previous tests using police simulators, James monitored the neurophysiological reactions, such as brain waves, of both police officers and civilians to deadly encounters. She said in an interview Tuesday that she found that “the participants were experiencing a greater threat response when faced with African Americans instead of white or Hispanic suspects.” But even with that response, in both studies the police and non-police participants were “significantly slower to shoot armed black suspects than armed white suspects, and significantly less likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.”
For the new study, James enlisted 80 patrol officers from the Spokane Police Department, which handles a city of about 250,000. The participants were almost all white (76 of 80) and nearly all male (71), which James said was reflective of the Spokane department, and they had an average age of 40 and experience of more than 14 years. The officers came into the lab on four occasions between August 2012 and November 2013, before the uproar ignited by police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere in 2014. On each day, they would face six scenarios, involving both armed and unarmed suspects who were both black and white. A total of more than 1,500 scenarios were recorded. The officers were not told the reason for the tests nor was any mention made of race, they wore full uniforms to enhance the realism, and they were paid for their time.