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Why a 911 caller is facing charges for a police shooting

The video shows John Crawford calmly walking around a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart, lightly swinging the airsoft rifle he had picked up at the store while talking on his cellphone. He finally pauses at an aisle, apparently looking at some items while still talking on the phone.

Suddenly police barge into the scene, shooting Crawford, a black man, dead.

One cause for this seemingly inexplicable scene: Another person in the store, Ronald Ritchie, had called 911 reporting a very different scene from the one shown on video. He said Crawford had loaded a real gun (he did not) and aimed it at other people and children (the gun remained pointed at the floor in the video).

Now Ritchie could face charges for the misleading 911 call.

Nick Wing reported for the Huffington Post that an Ohio judge found probable cause for charges. If officials decide to prosecute Ritchie, he could face a charge of making false alarms, which carries a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

This isn't the first time 911 contributed to a fatal police shooting. Prior to the police shooting of Tamir Rice, a 911 caller said that someone was aiming a gun at people in a Cleveland park — but the caller also clarified that the person was a juvenile and that the gun was "probably fake." The 911 dispatcher never relayed Rice's age or that the gun was likely a toy, potentially causing the police to respond with far too much alarm and force to a 12-year-old playing at the park.

Previously, a police officer also posted on Reddit — in a post that went viral — asking people to stop calling in "suspicious behavior" when they see black people doing completely normal things.

It's impossible to know what was going on in the minds of Ritchie or the people that the police officer wrote about on Reddit. But one possible explanation is these people have subconscious biases — also known as implicit biases — that altered how they perceived the actions of black people who were really doing nothing wrong.

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 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.

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."

But these biases can also affect people in everyday situations. It might even lead some people to call into 911 to report a threat that doesn't really exist — especially if they see, as the research shows many people do, black people as more likely to be criminals.

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. If people calling into 911 do the same thing, they might take a little more time to consider what they're reporting and whether it really poses a threat — and perhaps stop a situation from turning unnecessarily deadly.