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2 white Chicago cops posed for a picture depicting a black detainee as a hunted animal

Two former Chicago police officers thought it was okay to pose in a picture depicting a black detainee as a hunted animal. Seriously.

Here's the picture, published by the Chicago Sun-Times's Frank Main and Kim Janssen, which shows two white ex-cops, neither of whom are still with the Chicago Police Department, holding hunting rifles as they pose with a black man wearing antlers:

Chicago Sun-Times

Some people might interpret this picture as just a stupid gag. But it provides a startling, extreme example of how police officers can dehumanize black people on the job.

The black man in the picture, which is believed to have been taken sometime between 1999 and 2003, was supposedly arrested for possessing marijuana, but he was later let go — without filing an arrest record — because he didn't have a substantial criminal record. The man's identity remains unknown.

One of the officers in the picture, Jerome Finnigan, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2011 for leading a group of rogue cops in robberies, home invasions, and other crimes, according to the Sun-Times. The other officer, Timothy McDermott, was fired last year after federal officials turned over the photo to the city.

McDermott has admitted the picture was a mistake, although he's appealing his dismissal from the police department. "I am embarrassed by my participation in this photograph," McDermott said, according to the Sun-Times. "I made a mistake as a young, impressionable police officer who was trying to fit in."

It's deeply concerning that a young cop felt he had to take part in a picture depicting a black man as a hunted animal to fit in. But it also conveys the type of systemic and implicit racism that permeates in police departments and US culture.

Police and the public often dehumanize black men

As part of a study published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in March 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 age 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."

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.

Dehumanization and subconscious racial biases are worrying because they may contribute to greater use of force. 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."

It's this type of racial bias that has been at the center of debates over racial disparities in police use of force over the past year. When cops used force on Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, the question for many critics of police was how subconscious biases factored into the deadly encounters. For instance, Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown, described the black 18-year-old to a grand jury as a demon-like, dead-eyed giant who charged at him through a hail of gunfire — a callback to old racist tropes of "giant negroes" attacking police and innocent people.

As far as we know, the two former Chicago police officers never used force against the black man in the photograph. But the picture still provides a rare and clear example of how far the dehumanization of black people can go among police forces.