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Why police so often see unarmed black men as threats

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 just about 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.

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 reaction to police killings since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — most recently, the police shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma — is about more than a specific individual incident; it's also about the overall system that makes such deaths at the hands of police disproportionately common.

Police killings by race. Alvin Chang/Vox

But it's not just police shootings. When looking at the criminal justice system as a whole, there are many, many racial disparities — in incarceration rates, length of prison sentences for the exact same crimes, and even the death penalty.

Some of the disparities are explained by socioeconomic factors — such as poverty, unemployment, and segregation — that make black Americans much more likely to commit crime than their white counterparts. But a 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, "There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates." That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.

Cops stereotype 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. She previously talked to me about how these biases can work.

"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 defined as reasonable (usually as judged by a prosecutor, judge, jury, or grand jury). 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.

A New York City police officer. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

But if some cops automatically consider 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. So police officers might be more likely to use deadly force against black people that's legally justified but perhaps not totally necessary.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and California State University Northridge in May 2014 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 may be partly 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.

A police officer stands with a shotgun in Ferguson, Missouri. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor, ran some of these tests with a shooter video gameHis 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 shooting.

In the real world, this could lead police to shoot black people at disproportionate rates. Real policing situations, after all, 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 officers.

So if cops, as Correll's simulations suggest, tend to shoot black suspects more quickly, it's possible that could lead to more errors — such as shooting a black suspect when it's not necessary — in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he previously told me, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

Other research found that the public and police are less likely to view black people as innocent. As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious "dehumanization bias" against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.

In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as "significantly less innocent" than their white counterparts.

"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."

Better police training can help overcome implicit bias

Police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The one optimistic part of all this grim research is that implicit biases may be reduced over time 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 racial disparities in the criminal justice system.)

A British police officer poses with a revolver. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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, previously told me that 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. 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.

Baltimore police arrest a drug buyer. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Franklin, now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the war on drugs, 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 obtain federal grants, which can be tied in part to, for instance, how many arrests they carry out. As was the case in Ferguson, the tickets issued by police officers can also make up a huge source of money for local governments, which encourages police to issue as many tickets as possible — potentially in the black communities they're more likely to be deployed in — 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, magnifying the effects of implicit bias.

There are also broader issues with how police are deployed and the tactics they use. Since some of the highest-crime communities are often majority black or brown, police are disproportionately deployed in these areas in a very aggressive manner — often encouraged to, for example, chase down suspects at almost any cost. That's why some reformers say it's necessary to also change how police are deployed and act on the job — not solely to reduce racial biases but to reduce the need to use force in general. (Of course, because of racial biases, the benefits here would largely go to black communities.)

As Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, put it to the Washington Post: Police "need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun. When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."

It's these types of systemic issues, noted by Franklin and Davis, that are at the root of the problem — and might perpetuate systemic racial disparities even if officers are properly trained in how to deal with implicit bias.