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NBA player Thabo Sefolosha's trial is just the latest case in excessive police use of force

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On Friday, Atlanta Hawks player Thabo Sefolosha was acquitted of charges that led police to forcefully arrest him — in a case that could lead to yet more litigation over racial disparities in how police use force in America.

On April 8, New York City police officers told Sefolosha, who is black, to leave an area around a club where another NBA player, Chris Copeland, had been stabbed, ESPN reported. Police said Sefolosha disobeyed orders, forcing them to take him into custody. But Sefolosha said he had moved off the block after being ordered out by a vulgar police officer, and was trying to give $20 to a beggar before he was taken to the ground by cops.

The cops' use of force fractured Sefolosha's right leg — a very, very bad injury for a professional basketball player, and one that ended the season early for him. Sefolosha said he hasn't made a decision on whether he will sue the city for the takedown and injury — but if other cases are any indication, a lawsuit could cost taxpayers millions of dollars, especially if a jury considers the potential impact of a season-ending injury for a basketball player.

But more than being potentially damaging to Sefolosha's career, the case highlights yet another instance of police using force against an unarmed black man. With this issue getting more attention in the year after the Ferguson, Missouri, protests, any potential litigation could become part of a much broader national conversation on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Police officers said Sefolosha was disobeying orders, so they took him to the ground

Sefolosha was departing from a nightclub in New York City when police took him to the ground, allegedly for taking too long to leave the area of a crime scene in which two women and Indiana Pacers player Chris Copeland were stabbed.

Police said Sefolosha wasn't involved in the stabbing incident, but he was charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration, and resisting arrest after allegedly disobeying police orders to leave the scene.

Prior to the takedown, Sefolosha had said that he challenged the tone of an aggressive officer who told him to leave the area, according to ESPN. Sefolosha, who is 6-foot-6, said he called the 5-foot-7 officer "a midget."

A video, released by TMZ Sports, showed police grabbing Sefolosha by the neck and taking him to the ground. One officer brandished a baton in the video. But it's not clear in the footage what caused Sefolosha's injury, although he's shown seemingly limping away.

Prosecutors offered Sefolosha a plea deal to dismiss the charges in exchange for one day of community service, but he said he wanted to set the record straight. The jury took roughly 30 minutes to deliberate, according to CNN, finding Sefolosha not guilty.

Sefolosha's leg injury required surgery. He's now been cleared to play, but only after the injury ended the previous season early for him, including the playoffs.

Beyond hurting Sefolosha's leg and potentially his career, though, the case reveals a startling fact about criminal justice: Black people are much more likely to have police use force against them.

Black suspects are more likely to have police use force against them

police shooting by race Joe Posner/Vox

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind shows that US police shoot and kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police shooting victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.

Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."

Sefolosha was not shot, but these statistics expose the startling gap in how police use force against different racial groups.

Last month, a New York City police officer also took down former tennis star James Blake after mistaking him for a fraud suspect. An independent panel found the officer used excessive force against Blake, who is biracial, and both Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Police Commissioner William Bratton apologized for the incident, the New York Times reported.

There were also several high-profile police killings in the past year involving black men and boys. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in a highly contentious shooting that sparked nationwide protests. In Ohio, police killed 22-year-old John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in separate shootings after mistaking toy guns for actual weapons. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

One explanation for disproportionate use of force: subconscious biases

One explanation for the racial disparities in police use of force is that police, along with the general public, are much more likely to perceive black people as dangerous threats.

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."

"I've never been so disgusted by my own data"

Another study from UCLA researchers led to similar findings, concluding people are much more likely to associate stereotypical black names with aggression and violence than stereotypical white names. "I've never been so disgusted by my own data," Colin Holbrook, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name."

Other research suggests there can be superhumanization bias at work, as well, with white people more likely to associate paranormal or magical powers with black people than with other white people. And the more they associate magical powers with black people, the less likely they are to believe black people feel pain.

Subconscious racial biases are worrying because they may contribute to greater use of force by police. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes 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."

Watch: Why it's important to film the police