Most of the racial prejudice Americans harbor today is subtle and manifests itself in stealthier ways than it did in the past. It shows up in how employers view potential hires, how salespeople choose to assist people at high-end stores, or how teachers dole out punishments to misbehaving students. Often subconscious, these race-based evaluations of character or intelligence have wide-ranging effects.
Extensive research on the subject shows that everyone carries this subconscious prejudice, known as implicit bias, no matter how well-meaning they might be. In the criminal justice system, this implicit bias may contribute to the many racial disparities in law enforcement. When it comes to police officers, implicit bias is a widespread concern, precisely because of how devastating its effects can be, with trade publications and federal programs taking steps to address it through training and awareness.
Clearly, there are law enforcement officials who understand how devastating the effects of implicit bias can be, but no one understands this more than the people living in communities where racial minorities are disproportionately targeted by police and arrested. The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, are about more than the shooting of Michael Brown; the demonstrations are also about the overall system that makes Brown's fate at the hands of police far too common for young black men.
Take, for instance, the massive racial disparities in the war on drugs. Although rates of drug use are fairly similar among white and black Americans, black people are much more likely to be arrested on drug charges. When they're convicted for those drug charges, black Americans also face longer sentences — in part because mandatory minimum sentences on crack cocaine, one of the few illicit drugs that's more popular among black Americans than their white counterparts, are much more stringent than other drug sentences.
Even beyond the war on drugs, black Americans are disproportionately likely to be arrested and killed during an attempted arrest.
Part of the problem is outright racism among some judges and cops, socioeconomic disparities that can drive more crime, and drug laws that disproportionately affect black Americans. But the other explanation is that cops, like everyone else, carry this implicit bias, which experts agree affects how they police people of different races. Since these are the people who carry out the initial steps of law enforcement, this bias might launch a cascading effect of racial disparities that starts with simple arrests and ends in prison or death.
Cops stereotype young black men without being aware of it
Lorie Fridell is a University of South Florida criminologist who works with cops to help them resist subconscious biases, particularly against young black men.
"Similarly to explicit bias, [implicit bias] groups people into stereotypes and prejudices," Fridell said. "What's different is it doesn’t come with outward hostility."
In police work, this bias can show itself when an officer stops a subject he views as a potential threat. Police officers are legally allowed to use force based on their perception of a threat, so long as their perception is reasonable. That doesn't, however, mean they always use force. "Police very often use a lesser level of force even when they’re justified at a higher level," Fridell said.
But if some cops automatically consider young black men more dangerous, they probably won't show nearly as much restraint against a black suspect as they would against, say, an elderly white woman. Police officers might be more likely, as some argued was the case with Kajieme Powell in St. Louis, to use deadly force that's legally justified but perhaps not totally necessary.
Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and California State University at Northridge in May reviewed a decade of empirical evidence about cops and implicit bias. They found police officers seem to possess implicit bias that might make them more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones. But this bias can be controlled through proper training, and police officers appear to perform better — meaning, they show less implicit bias — than participants from the general public.
To test these disparities, researchers have run all sorts of simulations with police officers and other participants. In the earlier days, these simulations would quickly flash images of black and white people, along with different objects, and ask participants to identify if the object was a gun. More recently, researchers have used video games to see how people react to suspects of different races.
Josh Correll, a University of Colorado at Boulder psychology professor, ran some of these tests with a shooter video game. His initial findings showed police officers generally did a good job of avoiding shooting unarmed targets of all races, but, when shooting was warranted, officers pulled the trigger more quickly against black suspects than white ones. This suggests that officers exhibit some racial bias in how quickly they pull the trigger, but not when it comes to deciding whether to shoot a target.
Correll cautioned that these simulations aren't perfectly representative of the real world, because, he said, "What goes on in the street is an open question." Real policing situations are often much more complicated. Factors — such as a real threat to the officer's life and whether a bullet will miss and accidentally hit a passerby — can make the situation much more confusing to police. If cops, as Correll's initial simulations suggest, tend to shoot black suspects more quickly, it's possible that could lead to more errors in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them." "
Better police training can help overcome implicit bias
Perhaps the most optimistic part of the research is that, over time, evidence of implicit biases can be reduced through practice and experience. The longer officers and other participants took part in the simulations, the less likely they were to make errors. Some of Correll's research also found that certain types of training can diminish racial bias.
Fridell, of the University of South Florida, capitalizes on this research to help police departments around the country train their officers all along the chain of command. The training relies mainly on the types of shooting simulations used by Correll and other researchers to test cops, but the training sessions are redeveloped to purposely disprove stereotypes against race, gender, age, and other factors. As a result, the training sessions help officers learn to focus more on other cues — body language, what someone is holding — instead of race. (This training isn't generally required by law, but it's becoming more common as concerns grow about racism in the criminal justice system.)
Fridell said that this training needs to look beyond race. "In the same way we as humans have stereotypes linking blacks to crime and aggressiveness, we also have stereotypes of lack of crime and aggressiveness," she said, pointing to women and the elderly as two examples. "For a police officer, this might lead him to be under-vigilant against certain groups."
Neill Franklin, a retired major who served for 34 years in the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, said the need for this kind of training is something he witnessed in his everyday work. As the commander in training units in both the state and local police forces, he often pushed for officers to consider their bias before taking any official action as a cop.
"[W]e all have this subconscious bias. Even me, as a black police officer, I felt the same," Franklin said. "When I would be in certain parts of the city and see young black males, it would run through my mind, 'What are they up to? Are they dealing?' That's because of what we've been bombarded with for so many years from so many different directions, including the media."
Beyond the simulations and training, Fridell said community policing, which focuses on building ties between local police departments and their communities, can help break down stereotypes. This is what's called the contact theory: positive interactions with stereotyped groups can reduce explicit and implicit biases. A cop who interacts with black residents in his town might realize that many of his previous prejudices, implicit or not, weren't warranted.
Community policing can work in two directions as well. Just as police's perceptions toward the community change, so do community perceptions toward police. This could, Fridell explained, make communities less defensive — and therefore less aggressive — during police interactions.
Franklin, now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, worries the training might not be enough in the face of perverse incentives in the criminal justice system. Local police departments are under constant pressure to make enough arrests to obtain federal grants, which are often tied in part to, for instance, the number of drug arrests within a city. As is the case in Ferguson, the tickets issued by police officers can also make up a huge source of money for local governments, which might encourage police to issue as many tickets as possible to bring in more revenue.
Given those incentives, Franklin said, police are encouraged to go after "low-hanging fruit" often found in minority communities that lack political and financial power. This magnifies the effects of implicit bias. In the end, Franklin suggested the revenue incentive is the root of the problem — and the issue of racial disparities won't go away until that's resolved.
For more information about racial disparities and the Ferguson protests, read the full explainer and check out the two-minute video below: