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Police can choose Tasers over guns, but some data shows the racial bias stays the same

Racial disparities in police shootings have gotten a lot of attention over the past few years. But how about other uses of force by law enforcement?

In the coming weeks, Connecticut will become the first state to release full stun gun use statistics. An early look by the Associated Press found that, yes, there are big racial disparities, Dave Collins reported:

— State and municipal police reported 641 incidents involving stun guns last year, including 437 actual firings and 204 threats of use.

— Within the overall number of stun gun incidents, officers fired them 60 percent of the time in cases involving whites, 80 percent of the time in cases involving blacks and 69 percent of the time in cases involving Hispanics.

— Officers warned about firing but did not do so at white suspects 40 percent of the time, black suspects 20 percent of the time and Hispanic suspects 31 percent of the time.

— When officers fired their stun guns in 2015, 43 percent of the suspects were white, 35 percent were black and 21 percent were Hispanic. But when officers only threatened to use stun guns and did not fire them, 61 percent of the subjects were white, 19 percent were black and 20 percent were Hispanic.

— Thirty percent of the people involved in the overall incidents were black and 21 percent were Hispanic.

So black and Hispanic Connecticut residents — who make up 11.5 and 15 percent of the state's population, respectively — are disproportionately likely to have stun guns used on them.

But police also seem more lenient toward white suspects than their Hispanic and black counterparts: Cops warned suspects but did not fire in 40 percent of recorded stun gun incidents involving white people, but only avoided firing in 20 percent of incidents involving black suspects and 31 percent of incidents involving Hispanic suspects.

It's impossible, based on just these statistics, to gauge what went on in the police officers' minds during stun gun incidents. But one potential explanation for why cops are more likely to use force against black and Hispanic people, even after a warning, is what's known as "implicit bias": subconscious biases that shape how nearly everyone perceives people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Most people are at least a little racist, even if they don't know it

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC. Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

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 with a history 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 University of California Los Angeles 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.

Another study found people tend to associate what the authors call "black-sounding names," like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do "white-sounding names," like Connor and Garrett.

"I've never been so disgusted by my own data," Colin Holbrook, the 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."

These biases can seriously impact people's lives

As one can imagine, subconscious racial biases can have real effects on people's lives — such as their job prospects. In one study, researchers sent out almost entirely identical résumés — except some had stereotypically white names, while others had stereotypically black names. The white names were 50 percent more likely to be called back for interviews.

police shooting by race Joe Posner/Vox

These biases also 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."

Knowing about implicit bias and its consequences is important, researchers say, not just to prove how terrible the world is but because awareness is one of the ways to combat such biases. Police departments have, for example, taken steps to train their police officers to resist their biases.

The Connecticut stun gun statistics don't definitively prove that these types of biases are present in police, but they may indicate that more work needs to be done in this area.

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